Film Reviews

1408 Mikael Hafstrom

Rating - 7/10

Like almost everything I've seen with the Steven King moniker attached to it, 1408 is a sensationalist and ultimately empty exercise in horror filmmaking. And like the Shining and Misery, it is also one of the few King vehicles that actually works. Not surprisingly, the deftness of the direction and the skill of the actors help elevate this above the likes of Christine, and the scary bits help override the smarminess that ruined the ridiculously overrated Shawshank Redemption. I should say "skill of the actor" since the great Samuel Jackson barely appears and John Cusack is left to carry the entire film.

Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a cynical writer of ghost travelogues (Ten Scariest Bed & Breakfasts, etc) who is struggling with the recent death of his daughter and estrangement from his wife. Jaded by one too many stays at hyped haunted houses, he is mysteriously tipped off to room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in New York. Samuel Jackson plays the hotel manager who tries to warn him off staying in the room, but Enslin dismisses this as a sales pitch. After finally checking in, he quickly descends into a nightmare odyssey confronting his demons, or as he imagines it, visiting successive circles of Dante's Hell (the analogy doesn't stand up to literary scrutiny, but it was facile enough for King). Essentially this amounts to a one-man show for Cusack, and the plot is filled out by having him dictate his thoughts into a mini-cassette recorder. My girlfriend, whose attention to detail never ceases to amaze me (and keeps me honest), picked up on the not so subtle homage to Say Anything. Bad things ensue.

The director, Mikael Håfström makes wise use of the natural sympathy the audience has for Cusack and has us rooting for him up until the end. He also plays up the creep factor and only fails occasionally by letting us see too much. Without revealing any plot details I will say that the twists towards the end get a bit heavy handed after a while, but how many of those O Henry type turns actually work? Without coming down too hard on how Håfström wraps up everything in a neat little bow I can recommend the film as an entertaining genre piece, and a chance to see one of our most engaging actors in a workout that ranges from humour to horror.

By Alan Shulman

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1408 is a small film with big set pieces. It's a character piece first and a horror film second, and sometimes forgets this within its 100 minute running time. This doesn't detract from what is a nifty little horror film that is more charming, if not more taut, than most horror films released today (I'm looking at you, Eli Roth).

The set-up is classic horror film: Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a best selling author who travels to reportedly "haunted" locations and sets out to debunk their stories. He has never once seen actual paranormal events and chooses not to believe in them when he is sent an ominous postcard telling him "Don't enter 1408." Naturally, he seeks out the hotel (the film is called 1408), and is warned by the hotel's manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) to, well, "not enter 1408." Naturally, he does (after a brilliantly acted scene that proves Jackson is still a badass when he's not being a badass), and Mike spends the next hour fighting for his life in a room that already took 56 other lives.

Director Mikael Håfström makes a smart move by making 1408 first and foremost about Mike. At the beginning of the film, Mike is a restless, cynical man who lost his daughter to an incurable disease, leaving his wife to explore the afterlife in search of a faith he lost with her; by the time the room brings him to question his sanity, he has become a believer, fighting for his life. This isn't always the case though; as for a stretch of the time Håfström is more interested in making the confined space a big metaphor for the inner workings of Mike's mind, which in turn allows for elaborate set pieces (of the ice, water and fire kinds, respectively). These make for some nice little scares, but they're not as interesting or as effective than one's that relate specifically to Mike or John Cusack's on target performance.

Along the way, Mike enlists the help of his estranged wife, Lily (Mary McCormack), and Gerald is still around to keep the film from turning into a one-man freak show, but this is still Cusack's film. He carries it through long stretches of time, and it's the ghostly apparitions that play off his performance than the other way around.

The film is pretty to look at (courtesy of Benoît Delhomme), and King's staple use of pop songs as eerie entities is effectively left intact (here as The Carpenter's "We've Only Just Begun"), but the film is far from perfect. 1408 gets close to bogging itself down with ghostly apparitions, most of which are never explained as to their purpose. This wouldn't be a problem if not for the film's upbeat ending.

King isn't exactly known for his endings, and his film adaptations aren't either (look no further than Secret Window, which took liberties in corrupting the author's original work). 1408's ending works because it's admirable, enclosing the film's middle section by being subtle and low key, like the film begins. But under scrutiny, it seems like a cheap cop-out, sacrificing the stark, uncompromising glimpse into the confines of Mike's mind for a more mainstream crowd pleaser. It may be poignant, but it lacks truth. This is also after the film's critical flow killing scene located in the third act that it never quite recovers from.

Still, detractors aside, 1408 is a nifty little thriller, one that never bores and is decidedly more thoughtful than most of King's adaptations. It has Cusack's strong performance, an abundance of thought provoking ideas, and some crafty scares. It may not always know what to do with them, but for a midsummer distraction, you can't go wrong checking into 1408.

By Lewis Parry

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