Friday, June 22, 2007
. Its a credit to Swedish filmmaker Mikael Hafstrom that his film works as well as it does despite its over explicit trailer. The film is based on a Stephen King story and its literary roots are evident but in a good way. This is a film that feels thought through in a way that books tend to do and horror films tend not to.
Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a writer who goes around the country debunking claims of paranormal activity. He writes throwaway guidebooks about the 10 most haunted places, hotels, or whatever the flavor is that month. Apparently, he had a promising career as a novelist but those days seem far off in his distant past. The event that seems to have disrupted his life was the death of his young daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony).
Ordering room service can be a nightmare in 1408 (Dimension)
Currently separated from his wife Lily (Mary McCormack), Mike has managed to create a solitary life for himself as he travels from one hotel to another finding little more than wild tales of ghostly visitations. Then he receives a postcard from New Yorks Dolphin Hotel. On the card is a cryptic message warning him not to check into room 1408, which he notes with a laugh adds up to the superstitious number 13. This of course peaks his interest and he attempts to check into the room. But hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) refuses to let him. He points out that more than fifty people have died in that room and that no one lasts more than a hour. Mike takes this as a publicity scam to build up the creepiness of the room. Gerald insists its no scam. He simply states: Its an evil fking room. (Now that line, delivered by Jackson, was really all you needed in the trailer.) But Mike prevails and ultimately gets his wish. Once in the room, it doesnt take long for the room to start working its evil spell.
Author Stephen Kings initial inspiration for this short story supposedly came from some news stories about a parapsychologist investigating a haunted room at the Hotel Del Coronado. For about the first hour, 1408 delivers a clever take on the horror formula. It does two things that are rarely done in contemporary horror films. First, it tries to build the horror subtly with mood, atmosphere and small details. The first scare involves Mike finding something as innocuous and tiny as hotel mints on his bed. And second, the keeps telling us not to be afraid. Since Mike is in the business of debunking scary tales, he spends much of his time telling the audience not to be afraid. He dismisses bizarre happenings with calm, rational explanations. Now this is quite refreshing, since most horror films hit us over the head with noisy musical punctuations and flashy effects driven shots as they desperately try to scare us.
John Cusack is trapped in 1408 (Dimension)
But director Mikael Hafstroms approach is quite effective. His visual approach continually leaves us the option of either buying into the horrors that Mike is experiencing or rationalizing that its all simply in his head. Hafstrom has experience depicting unease and evil. His Swedish film Ondskan (Evil) won acclaim for showing the cruel manipulation of young students by older ones at a boys school while his 2005 U.S. film Derailed created a paranoid portrait of one man falling victim to a con game. Hafstroms 1408 works best when it is simple. In the scenes of Mike trying to reason with himself about whats happening, the film approaches the kind of surreal, psychological horror of The Shining or The Haunting (the original not the remake). But Hafstrom does fall victim to the demand for big effects and thats where the film starts to lose effectiveness.
But even with its faults, 1408 proves to be a solid thriller that manages to unnerve and entertain. Cusack is a great choice as the skeptical and snarky writer who may have to come to terms with the fact that not every haunted tale is a fiction. Cusack is an engaging performer with an ironic sense of humor. He makes a perfect touchstone for the audience.
Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme and production designer Andrew Laws provide us with a hotel room thats spooky in its mundaneness. From the drab carpet to the annoying floral wallpaper, its very much like any room anyone has ever stayed in. But then they reveal unpleasant stains and dinginess that suggest some unpleasant happenings. Hafstrom works well with his creative team to deliver a film manages to scare without gore.
1408 (rated PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing sequences of violence and terror, frightening images and language) falters towards the end but rebounds with an effective final kicker. Its offers a refreshing spin on the horror formula, and joins The Shining, Vacancy and Barton Fink as a film that makes the usually accommodating hotel business seem disturbingly bad for your mental health.
Companion viewing: Ondskan (Evil), The Shining, The Haunting (1960), Barton Fink -----