Literary-speaking, “1408,” is based on a second-tier Stephen King text, but a gifted cast, headed by John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, well-served by the skillful Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom, elevates the horror feature above the routine, resulting in quite a pleasing psychological thriller.
Question is, can the theatrical market support so many horror flicks It's hard to recall a time when so many genre films are made–practically one or two every week. Rather refreshingly, “1408″ is an old-fashioned horror tale, more a psychological thriller and a ghost story than a slasher-torture flick full of gimmicks and special effects. The freakish scares in “1408″ derives directly from the development of character and plot.
Thematically, “1408″ belongs to the sub-genre of horror tales set in a confined space, be it hotel, hostel, or a single room. Stephen King himself has contributed to this turf with “Shining,” starring Jack Nicholson as a blocked writer, which Kubrick made into a brilliant film in 1980, and then “Misery,” also about a writer (James Caan), stuck in a cabin in an isolated icy road with a sadistic fan (Kathy Bates).
In “1408,” the protag is also a renowned writer, Mike Enslin (Cusack), a rational-pragmatic novelist who believes only in what he can see with his own eyes. However, after a number of best-selling horror books, which discredit paranormal events in the world's most infamous haunted houses and graveyards, Enslin has no real proof of life, or rather after-life.
Enslin is a familiar screen type, and thus we know that he is bound for a comeuppance of sorts, a shocking experience that will forever change his presumably solid and stable value system. Checking into suite 1408 of the notorious Dolphin Hotel for his new project, titled “Ten Nights in Haunted Hotel Rooms,” he defies the warnings of the hotel manager Olin (Jackson) that he is the first person in years to stay in the haunted room.
Another bestseller may be in the works for Enslin, but like many of King's heroes, not before he goes through trials and tribulations that will change him from a skeptic to a believer, forcing him in the process to confront some deep, personal demons.
It's a pleasure to report that Swedish writer-director Mikael Hfstrm's second English-speaking project is much better than his disappointing first American feature, the 2005 adulterous thriller “Derailed,” starring Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston.
The script, by Matt Greenberg and Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (“Ed Wood”), elaborates and fills in the gaps in King's short story, which was originally part of an audio book and subsequently published in the 2002 collection “Everything's Eventual.”
The writers don't shy away from offering background info, psychological motivation and character development, concept that are mostly absent from the new horror flicks. Enslin writes novels about haunted houses, exploring all kinds of myths and legends. We learn that he has experienced a profound tragedy–he's a wayward soul still suffering from the loss of his young daughter. Sad and depressed, Enslin has lost his way and now searches for somethingexactly what he doesn't know.
After receiving a postcard alluding to the 1408 mystery, Enslin decides the story will provide the material for the last chapter in his new book, “Haunted Hotel Rooms.” At first, Enslin sees 1408 as part of an elaborate con that Olin and his staff are pulling so that the hotel's bookings will go up.
Olin, a relatively minor character in the story, whose role was expanded for the film, has been the manager of the hotel for years, and he's very proud of it. If Olin tries to keep people out of 1408, it's because he doesn't want to clean up the mess; at least four deaths have happened under his supervision, which doesn't exactly enhance the hotel's reputation.
Less successful if the film's subplot involving Ensign's estranged wife Lilly (Mary McCormack), which is a clich. Mike and Lilly's relationship has never been the same since their daughter passed away. Though estranged for years, they're still in love. They've fallen into a trap that many couples of their kind have–not talking about the tragedy and not mourning the same way, and then having nothing to discuss except the tragedy that neither of them wants to discuss in the first place.
Considering that for most of the yarn Cusack is acting alone, wrestling with his character's demons in the confines of a single hotel room, “1408″ is not the least claustrophobic. This is partly due to the fact that Enslin meets horror in the form of his own demons and has to fight them on his own.
Indeed, the best thing about the film is the versatile Cusack who, as the tormented author, imbues the tale with a sustained sense of foreboding and inner doom. The blurring of the line between what's fantasy and what's reality is a major theme of the film, which has the logic of a dream. The things that Mike sees are things that could have happened or could also reflect his worst nightmare.
The room is haunted with a spirit that manipulates whatever events its occupants bring in with them from their pasts. Mike sees visions of past events, former relationships, deceased people that he had unfinished business with, and members of his family; among the visitors are Enslin's dead daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony).
Credibly cast, Cusack makes his cynical writer much more sympathetic and likable than previous actors who played novelists in King-inspired films, such as Jack Nicholson or James Caan. Cusack's ability to grab our attention from his first scene, and put us on his side throughout the ordeal, is essential for the saga's effectiveness as a nightmarish journey, one that could happen to us, too.
With the help of the French ace photographer Benot Delhomme, Hafstrom translates King's pulp sensibility to the screen with its lurid and vibrant elements intact. The scares get increasingly more intense and they are spread rather evenly throughout. Gradually, the room itself takes on a distinct personality and becomes a character for Enslin to reckon with.
In the second and third acts, things get pretty wild, but overall, and contrary to the norm these days,”1408″ doesn't rely too heavily on computer-generated effects. Reportedly, about 400 visual effects shots were used to create the more elaborate moments, such as the water bursting into the room, the room turning into a ship, the wall cracking, all sights well integrated into the scary mood of the movie.
Putting a new spin on a well-trod genre, “1408″ is a paranormal thriller that depicts creepy things in a believable way, which makes it more horrifying. It's a metaphysical mind bender, because you really don't know if the hotel room is doing this to Enslin–or if it's just his projections. A scary ride for 94 minutes, “1408″ is good summer entertainment.
The filmmakers claimed that tyhey changed the ending of King's short story because it was not very cinematic, but they promise alternate endings on the movie's DVD version.
Mike Enslin (John Cusack)
Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson)
Lily Enslin (Mary McCormack)
Katie Enslin (Jasmine Jessica Anthony)
An MGM release of a Dimension Films presentation of a Lorenzo di Bonaventura production.
Produced by di Bonaventura.
Executive producers: Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Jake Myers, Richard Saperstein. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom.
Screenplay, Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, based on the story by Stephen King.
Camera: Benoit Delhomme.
Editor: Peter Boyle.
Music: Gabriel Yared.
Production designer: Andrew Laws.
Art director: Stuart Kearns.
Set decorator: Marina Morris.
Costume designer: Natalie Ward.
Sound: Brian Simmons.
Special effects supervisor: Paul Corbould; visual effects supervisors, Sean H. Farrow, Uel Hormann, Matt Hicks, Adam Gascoyne, Stefan Drury, Simon Leech.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 94 Minutes.
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