Sunday, June 24, 2007


1408 could probably best be described as a horror film of the "haunted house" variety, but it's only a few wisecracks away from being a out-and-out comedy. Based on a story by Stephen King and bearing more than a few similarities to his own novel "The Shining," 1408 features a protagonist so jaded on ghost stories, it takes him about half of the film to become convinced that he's in one. And even after the walls have started bleeding and the hammer-wielding spirits actually materialize around him, he's still trying to explain it all away. It's sort of like a more subtle version of Wes Craven's Scream, a goofy, largely predictable horror film that doubles as a critique of goofy, predictable horror films. It's a modest success, to be sure, but a success nonetheless.

Answer me this...why does Stephen King so compulsively feel the need to write stories about writers? I mean, yes, I understand that writing has been his career for most of his life, and therefore he has more experience and insight into the life of a writer than, say, a construction worker or dentist. But he's a creative guy, right? I mean, his ending's suck, but he's invented more than his fair share of memorable characters and scenarios. I was definitely into "The Stand" for the first 750 pages or so.

In this particular case, our heroic writer is Mike Enslin (John Cusack), who chronicles overnight stays in haunted hotels, inns and beds and breakfasts in a series of not-particularly-popular travel books. The film's actually somewhat confusing in this regard. At first, it seems like Mike's quite successful and respected; people are always commenting to him about his books and he's greeted enthusiastically by hotel owners hoping to cash in on a high-profile Enslin write-up.

But then we get a scene at a book signing and almost no one has shown up, and the one enthusiastic patron who is there asks Mike about the father-son novel he wrote before he became a ghosthunter. Also, Mike quite openly admits that he doesn't believe in ghosts, and always writes truthfully in his books about not seeing any ghosts in these haunted places, but people apparently find his books frightening. Wouldn't they be mundane if they always chronicled haunted houses that turned out not to be haunted? It doesn't really sound like a fun read to me.

Anyway, Mike's naturally at this point jaded on the whole concept of hauntings. The drill's always the same: the owners of the hotel, who have a financial interest in propagating supernatural mystery, build up the suspense with outlandish stories, legends and sightings, and then he stays the night and finds out it's just a boring hotel room.

He receives an odd postcard in the mail beckoning him to the Dolphin Hotel of New York, a city he hasn't returned to since a tragedy that befell his family one year before. Intrigued by the postcard, which reads only "Don't stay in 1408," Enslin arranges a trip. He's warned off by the hotel's manager (Samuel L. Jackson), who seems genuinely worried about Enslin's safety in 1408. No one has ever survived the room for more than an hour, he says. 56 people have died there; some violently, some by their own hand, some of natural causes. A maid who was cleaning the room for 10 minutes once gouged out her own eyeballs, while laughing hysterically, no less.

But, of course, such warnings are a regular part of Enslin's routine; he blows them off every time. What would be unsettling would be if no warning came before walking into a supposedly enchanted hotel room.

So, after some negotiating, the key to 1408 is turned over and Enslin ventures inside. For a few moments, everything seems fine. Then the clock radio starts going off uncontrollably and all hell breaks loose.

This premise is clever but also exceedingly straight-forward. How can director Mikael Håfström (whose previous film was the wretched Jen Aniston "thriller" Derailed) and screenwriters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski possibly be expected to get a full movie out of one guy freaking out in a hotel room?

The answer is twofold. First off, they cheat, taking their time before getting Enslin into the room and then messing around with space-time a bit in the end. But it was really the casting of Cusack and the development of Enslin as a character that saves the film.

To be honest, it's not a very tight script, despite the considerable talents involved in its conception. (Alexander and Karaszewski penned such biopic classics as Ed Wood and The People Vs. Larry Flynt. Greenberg H20 and Reign of Fire. So I guess it evens out).

Once 1408 reveals itself to be an actual evil room and not just an old wives' tale, the film essentially runs out of story. Like in a lot of ghost stories, the spirit world seems capable of shifting our lived-in reality only temporarily. We look in the mirror and see a distorted, undead face, we scream, and then when we look again, our normal face is restored, right? 1408 plays by these same rules. Mike will look at the phone, that phone will start to melt and distorted otherworldly voices emanate, we get a reaction shot of Mike freaking out, and then back on the phone and it's a normal phone again.

Well, after that happens a few times, the audience gets clued in that none of the film's action has consequences, none of the risks or decisions have stakes. Normally, this would spell disaster for a horror film. How can we be scared by something that we know doesn't matter? Monsters are only frightening because of their potential to harm; neuter them, and they become sideshow attractions. But because of the Enslin character's initial apathy and then fascination with his predicament, we get to experience some of these tried-and-true "scare" scenes from a different perspective.

Take the sequence where Enslin has an imaginary argument with what appears to be Jackson's hotel manager, only shrunken down and living in the room's mini-fridge. The ghostly Jackson insists that Mike is getting what he deserves. People find the notion of ghosts comforting, a representation of the life that awaits of all after death. Mike writes books that dispell these myths and crushes their hopes, so it's only fitting that he be punished by the very phenomenon he has spent his life refuting. In essence, Mike's being haunted by a ghost who wants to discuss the nature and practice of haunting someone. The room is apparently possessed by a very postmodern poltergeist. Maybe it's a dead English professor...

It could be because I've just finished watching Season 2 of "Twin Peaks" on DVD, but I found the Enslin character vaguely reminiscent of Agent Dale Cooper from "Twin Peaks," particularly his ongoing chronicle of the entire ordeal on a pocket tape recorder. Addressing himself, though, not "Diane." But there's also a cool-headed emotional distance coupled with a giddy enthusiasm that McLachlan brought to Cooper and Cusack brings to Enslin.

He'll start to freak out, yelling at a dead relative who has just appeared before him or something, and then step outside of the experience and question its veracity. Frequently, this leads to (intentional) laughs, as when he frantically uses his laptop to video conference his ex-wife (Mary McCormack), telling her to send police to Room 1408 looking for him. Even the standard triple fake-out twist ending, that's part of the psychological horror film package each and every time these days, works as kind of a sidelong commentary on the whole notion of twisty endings. To throw you off the scent, Håfström sets up a few really cheesy fake endings before going for the real one, which is actually a bit more subtle and less gimmicky than I expected.

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