Tuesday, March 11, 2008

1408 (Mikael Håfström, 2007)

I find myself rather surprised to be writing an entry on this recent horror film, primarily because of my overall apathy towards the current spate of PG-13 horror films (Gremlins notwithstanding) as well as my overall indifference towards most current American horror films in general (not that I haven't seen any good horror movies made in the last decade, I have; it's just that very few I've seen have made a huge impression). I guess 1408 is the exception that proves the rule (George Romero’s film’s notwithstanding).

Mikael Håfström's film 1408, based on a short story by Stephen King, is perfectly cast, expertly paced, and grounded just enough in reality to make the story captivating.

Plus, let's face it: it's pretty gosh-darned creepy.

1408 is a take on the "Haunted Hotel/Haunted House" motif, although those thinking that this is a retread of King's novel (and subsequently Stanley Kubrick's film) The Shining will be mistaken: whereas the core of The Shining is Jack's alcoholic demons coming out of the woodwork to eat him alive, the core of Håfström's film is the protagonist confronting profound feelings of grief from the loss of his child.

However, like The Shining, 1408 plays on people's inherent fears of hotel rooms. What makes the titular hotel room so ominous is its banality: rather than emulate the hotel room and lobby of the one in Barton Fink, it's décor mirrors about 90% of the hotel rooms I've stayed in. "Hotels are a naturally creepy place," the hero states at one point in the film. "Just think, how many people have slept in that bed before you? How many of them were sick? How many...died?"

What also makes 1408 exceptional is that it's ostensibly a one-man show that more or less takes place in one location (one could argue that this could make a pretty good stage play). The casting of John Cusack is inspired; he's arguably one of the most genuinely likable performers working in film today. His smug and charming persona mirrors our own skepticism and his confidence...

(Cusack really sells the line: "I know that ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties...don't exist. And even if they did, there's no God to protect us from them, now is there?")

...gives the audience a false sense of security.

In 1408, Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a hack writer who writes a series of books based on supposed haunted houses and haunted hotel rooms. He thinks it's all a bunch of bull, but what the hell? It's what he gets paid for.

At one point, Mike gets an anonymous tip about room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel in New York, and decides that that's where his next trip will be (he even notices what the numbers in the hotel room add up to). The hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) pleads with him to stay out of that room, and points out that 56 people have died gruesome deaths in that room, most of them by their own hand. What's wrong with the room? According to Mr. Olin, it's simply "an evil fucking room."

Does that scare off our intrepid and non-believing hero? Of course not. Mike Enslin insists on having the key, and Mr. Olin (who's ultimately legally obligated to rent out the room) reluctantly obliges.

And of course, was Mr. Olin just blowing smoke? Well, hell. We all know Mike Enslin's not going to have a peaceful and undisturbed slumber in this hotel room. This is, after all, based on a story by Stephen King.

Sure enough, weird shit starts to happen, from ominous the radio clock playing the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" despite being unplugged to the phone melting in Mike's hand to (something simultaneously very funny and ultra-creepy) the toilet-paper roll refolding itself into a neat little triangle when Mike's back is turned.

Not only that, several ghosts from Mike's tortured past, including his dead father and his dead daughter (whose premature death ended his relationship with his wife), decide to keep him company.

Despite the fine writing and direction, I'm not 100% sure just how effective 1408 would be with an actor other than Cusack: he carries the bulk of this film on his shoulders. You truly empathize with Mike Enslin and his terror and pain, and part of what makes the movie succeed as a horror film is that you really want these nightmarish atrocities to stop being inflicted on him.

Ultimately, 1408 is a brilliant example of how the slow and steady building of tension and suspense can offer scares over violence and gore. This is especially noticeable when you compare the genuinely scary PG-13 1408 to the completely un-scary R-rated Hostel and Saw films.

Checking the sheets with UV lights,

James "I'll Sleep in the Car" Comtois

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Anonymous Ian Mackenzie said...


Agreed. 1408 is a genuinely scary contemporary American horror film. I loved the art direction but remember feeling vaguely let down by the ending . . .

The person I watched the film with felt that there was something manipulative (in a bad way) about all the dread that's wrung out of the deceased child theme – especially toward the end.


And I agree that Cusack makes the film. The Jackson character seemed a little far-fetched, as did the "legally obligated to rent the room" bit. Might there have been a better solution to building up that sense of taboo around the room 1408?

But, yes. Some utterly show stopping sequences and flourishes of art direction. And scary as hell.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I'm actually glad you brought this up, Ian, since the second I posted this entry, I realized I was a bit brief with talking about the death of Mike Enslin's daughter. I've heard both sides of the argument so far, mainly from parents who have seen the film (some think it's a smart button to push with parents of young children, some think it's overly manipulative). Since I don't have kids of my own, I'm pretty personally detached from such feelings (i.e., it's not a personal button of mine).

Looking at it from a completely dispassionate point of view, I didn't find the flashback scenes too schmaltzy, but perhaps that's again because of Cusack's performance: he never goes overboard with portraying his grief or chews the scenery or anything like that.

And I'll also admit I'm still not 100% sure how I feel about the very ending (which I'll not describe here, although anyone's welcome to offer spoilers in their comments). On one hand, it made me scratch my head and go, "Uh...what?" On the other, I appreciated how it mirrored the earlier "false" ending (which I liked).

The legal obligation stuff is actually straight out of King's story (and is actually some bizarre loophole in the real law), though I think King handled that aspect of the plot a bit better in his short story. Though, to be honest, for fun, I decided to read the story then immediately (like, five minutes later) watch the movie, so I may be a bit hazy as to how detailed the movie went into why the room hasn't just been gutted (it's explained in the story for sure).

5:17 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

Here's an interesting aside - in King's book ON WRITING (which everyone, EVERYONE should read, the best book about the craft ever written!) he uses a rough draft of 1408 to show how one should properly revise a story - you see an early sample scene and then he gives you his marked copy of the same scene, revised (complete with changing the manager's name from Overmeyer to Olin simply because, King said, I don't feel like typing Overmeyer over and over, heh-heh) . . . it's a great lesson on how a writer should revise, he cuts all the fat off.

I have another interesting thing to share with ya, but I'll email you off list . . . but check out the ON WRITING book, it's a great read. . . .

6:24 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Agreed, Joshua. EVERYONE should read King's On Writing. Same with Danse Macabre. :)

And I should probably point out, Ian, that I agree with you that 1408 is not a perfect movie. There are definitely flaws with it (particularly with the ending). But ultimately, I do think its strengths outweigh its flaws.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Zack said...

I loved this movie! I also highly recommend "On Writing". Wonderful movie and wonderful book. Cusack was brilliant. When was the last time you saw a scary movie and were actually scared, right?

Plus, Sam Jackson has a classic line: "It's an evil f#cking room."

7:45 PM  
Anonymous Ian Mackenzie said...

Hey James – 

Finally saw "Audition."

What a nightmare!


11:22 AM  

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