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by Bill Gibron

27 Jun 2007

They call it the ‘sophomore slump’. It’s a phrase reserved for any artist/filmmaker/musician that follows up an initial success with a decidedly underwhelming second project. In the realm of the motion picture, a perfect example would be Richard Kelly. In 2001, he concocted a little science fiction freakout named Donnie Darko. It’s tale of time travel and suburban foreboding struck a chord with disenfranchised and alienated teens everywhere, and while not a major box office hit, it found a massive audience when it was release on home video. There was even a director’s cut DVD. Yet his second film, the still unreleased Southland Tales, was met with unmitigated hatred when it premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. From “unwatchable” to “a work of wounded hubris”, the outright rejection from audiences has held up any major theatrical play dates (it’s now tentatively scheduled for March 2008!).

James Wan was a little luckier than that. His Dead Silence only took four years from conception to release, and instead of blatantly burying the Australian filmmaker’s second major fright film, Universal actually gave it a massive mainstream roll out (over 1800 screens). Critics responded like they do for most horror films - i.e. they dismissed it outright without much analytical thought - and the film flopped. Of course, it didn’t help matters much that the publicity department kept stressing for director’s connection to the name-making Saw. The two movies couldn’t have been more dissimilar in tone, concept or execution.

Wan, along with writing partner Leigh Whannell, did indeed make waves in 2003 with their Sundance smash about a pair of unrelated individuals trapped in a booby-trapped bathroom, and the warped serial killer named Jigsaw who controlled their fate. Literally unknown, the pair became major macabre players thanks to the title’s cult-like success. A popular precursor to what is now called ‘torture porn’, the otherwise solid psychological thriller became an even bigger horror franchise, spawning two sequels so far (a third is on the drawing board). Whannell stayed on to guide the scripts, while his partner planned his next foray behind the lens. It turned out this old fashioned groovy Gothic ghost story was the proposed production.

For this film, Wan and Whannell developed a ghoulish female ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, and borrowing a bit from A Nightmare on Elm Street, gave her a fatalistic backstory involving child murder and citizenry revenge. Jumping forward to the present, we are introduced to Jamie Ashen, who has just lost his wife to a hideous murder. On the same night that he received one of Shaw’s demonic dummies, his spouse Lisa had her tongue ripped from her mouth. Returning to Raven’s Fair, the town he grew up in, Jamie uncovers the truth about the murdered performer and her bevy of disturbing dolls. He also confronts his cold and distant father over the clan’s connection to her crimes. When the detective investigating Lisa’s death shows up to keep his eye on Jamie, they are both tossed into an unnerving cycle of restless spirits and supernatural revenge.

While it is true that Dead Silence is nothing like Saw, it is also a fact that it’s far from a failure. Indeed, if you take the movie on its own, unusual terms, it ends up being an effective and suspenseful spook show. Now, there are a couple of elements you have to buy into in order to thoroughly enjoy this film. First and foremost, you have to believe that ventriloquist dummies are inherently frightening. Seeing them, sitting there, human-like eyes staring at you, burying their gaze directly down into your soul - this has to send several unsettled shivers right along your stone cold spine. If that doesn’t happen, or you haven’t built up enough gruesome goodwill after seeing Magic, The Great Gabbo, Devil Doll, or Dead of Night, then much of what Wan wants to do just won’t work. While it references other fright flicks – especially those of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento – it’s a premise that can be problematic.

The second issue has already been mentioned. Without giving too much away, Mary Shaw is a kind of sideshow Freddy Krueger. She killed children, but for reasons less sexually repugnant than our bad guy burn victim in a green and red sweater. Still, their origins are very analogous, and the whole nursery rhyme angle really seals the similarities. This will cause many fans to have a ‘been there, done that’ feeling that will cloud their potential enjoyment. It is a shame that Wan and Whannell couldn’t come up with something more original. After all, Mary Shaw has some really weird ideas about how to optimize her doll’s ‘realism’ – couldn’t that be murderous motivation enough. And since the character is played onscreen by the wonderfully enigmatic Judith Roberts, an actress capable of inciting fear with a simple look, you don’t need much more than dementia to direct your dread.

Those two elements aside, Dead Silence is a sensational looking film. Wan has lost known of his Saw-inspired directorial flair – he merely applies it in a much more controlled and colorful manner. This is a movie loaded with atmosphere and mood, where fog fills the woods and buildings practically breathe under the weight of their own disquieting ambience. Wan went all out to make Raven’s Fair the most menacing ghost-town in training since Collinsport and Collinwood withered under the residency of their namesake’s Dark Shadows. Especially eerie is the setting for the film’s finale, the decrepit old Guignol Theater. Since we also get to see it in its heyday, the transformation from showplace to sinister is truly bone chilling. But nothing can top the extremely disconcerting corpses in this film. Shaw’s murderous modus – pulling out people’s tongues - leaves horrific visages of dead bodies with their mouths unhinged and hacked open. Either in full view or suggestion, it’s potent paranormal stuff.

There are aspects to this movie that don’t quite gel, however. It seems that anyone who had just experienced the death of their spouse would want nothing to do with the doll at the center of the slaying, as well as the various unholy locales associated with it. Secondly, Wan and Whannell drop a couple of interesting subplots (the mortician’s crazy wife, the problems between Jamie and his distant dad) in favor of more moody walks through gloom drenched ruins. There is also something a tad artificial about Wan’s overall aesthetic approach. The movie looks great, but he relies on repetitive shots (cars traveling along superimposed maps) and specific framing devices (all buildings are composited head on and symmetrical) to drive the narrative. The acting is excellent all around, but we never find ourselves emotionally involved in the fate of our hero. Our attention is turned a little too much on how all this is going to turn out.

The answer is both satisfying…and a little sick. Wan and Whannell indeed save the best for last here, answering several questions (and raising a couple) with a conclusion that builds on almost everything we’ve seen before. It wraps up the film in a nice, nasty little bow, and quells any concerns that our pair couldn’t pull this off. Still, it’s strange that the final version (the unrated DVD adds some extra elements that really help establish the horror) didn’t connect with audiences. It’s the same kind of mood-oriented spine-tingler that 1408 has ridden all the way to the bank. Maybe it’s the two tenuous facets mentioned before. It could be that fans of Saw weren’t interested in something old school and subtle. Perhaps March is just a bad time to forward a fright flick. Whatever the case, Wan has survived. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next feature, a Death Wish inspired vigilante drama entitled Death Sentence (starring Kevin Bacon). Still, for fans looking for an alternative to all the blood and guts gumming up the current genre trappings, give this excellent effort a try. It’s an amazingly winning little creepshow. 

by Bill Gibron

26 Jun 2007

SiCKO is sensational. It’s perhaps the best movie Michael Moore has ever made. Granted, there will be those who view his anti-gun screed Bowling for Colombine as his most heartfelt effort (it did earn him an Oscar for Best Documentary) and now that the firestorm has died down, and the winds of change are basically blowing in his direction, Fahrenheit 9/11 looks more and more like a prescient populist prophecy. But those two amazing movies, along with the retro-reactionary Roger and Me and the rest of his confrontational canon really pale in comparison to this detailed dissection of the American Heath Care system. Looking at the problem from both the inside out and the international inward, Moore manages to do what his previous films have failed to accomplish. SiCKO, more than any other movie he’s made, is guaranteed to provide a cinematic catalyst for change.

Don’t think so? Unsure that people will rise up to challenge the substandard status quo of insurance coverage for the US population? Well, just remember this. A film is forever. Mock its methods or question its facts, but once it takes a stance, that statement is set in celluloid stone. From then on, it is up to others to redirect the dialogue, to challenge its veracity and pick apart the particulars. But at the end of the day, after all the agenda-based attacks and website scrutinizing, Moore will have delivered the first AND last word on the subject. And since the enemy he picks is well known and hated by a vast majority of the paying populace, it will survive the government threats, the industry lawsuits, and the brazen backlash from dozens of self-styled experts. In turn, Moore’s version of reality will become the JFK of the HMOs. The essentials may be specious, but the overall message is right on goddamn target.

During the film’s clever opening, we see immediately where Moore is going. He discusses the case of two people sans insurance, and immediately tosses their frightening fate aside. We can’t deal with this issue, you can hear the filmmaker thinking, it’s too much of a common man slam dunk. Instead, the focus of SiCKO is on people who actually have coverage, and how said supposed security blanket is actually a lifestyle (and life) threatening ruse. We get testimonials from individuals who’ve lost loved ones thanks to seemingly random decisions by blank corporate facades, and then Moore turns around and puts a mug onto those crass kill(er)joys. It’s this material that’s the most fascinating in SiCKO. Everyone has a horror story about being denied in a time of crisis, but when do we ever get to see the person behind the decision. Granted, these former insurance company workers are all miserable and overflowing with mea culpas. But no amount of forgiveness can erase the dollar oriented disasters that lay in their wake.

Throughout this initial half of the film, Moore sets up the first of his two main themes – that insurance companies are in it for the money, not the health care management. The resounding ‘D’uh” following said sentiment should argue against his success as a pundit. But Moore knows movies, and he understands that the right story can sidetrack an entire library of statistics and consulting reports. Thus, he presents the Smith family. Amiable, hard working, and dedicated followers of America’s Middle Class dream, we watch as Mom and Pop Smith are devastated by several personal problems (him – heart attacks, her – cancer) and slowly swallowed up by the bureaucratic bankruptcy of the system. The co-pays and deductibles, let alone the financial reality of dealing with six kids of their own, sends them into a downward spiral of money problems. Eventually, they must sell their home and move into a cramped basement computer room (with bunk beds!) in their daughter’s home.

Like the scene in Roger and Me where a kind-hearted sheriff’s deputy dispossess a distraught family, watching real people suffer in a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ manner is the most effective way of getting your point across. This is not an issue of mismanaged funds or individual liability. The Smiths bought into a system (paid into it, actually) that never intended to indemnify them come crunch time. Imagine – your car insurance suddenly stops taking effect right in the middle of a post-accident repair job. Your life insurance annuity ceases paying at the discretion of the company, not the contract. You sign up for disaster insurance before boarding a plane, and as the engines start to fail and the stewardesses shout out final instructions, the head rest phone rings. It’s your company, suddenly cutting off your coverage as a ‘potential risk’. Along with the other examples he provides in this section, Moore’s makes SiCKO a strong case for massive corporate reforms.

But what’s the model we should use? Which countries have the best universal coverage – or at least, in Moore’s opinion, put the American system to shame. The answer to this question composes the second half of SiCKO, and will probably be the sequence viewed with the most cynicism. Providing us a USA-ridiculing walking tour of the Canadian, French and British health care arrangement, Moore plays dupe to a bunch of everyday citizens who can’t imagine living in a country that doesn’t provide some manner of socialized medicine. Our intrepid reporter asks the same question over and over again – “what did it cost you?” – and the look of disconnect and confusion on these foreigners’ faces is classic. Time and time again, the answer is “nothing”, and Moore mimics their disbelief by wondering “what’s the catch”. Well, exploring said specifics and restrictions is not what SiCKO is on about. Again, the big picture is important here. No matter what it says in the fine print, almost every industrialized Western country has some form of universal health coverage – except the US.

Of course, the devil is always in the details, and there will be those who harp on minor misconceptions and abject realities as a means of trying to deflate SiCKO’s strategies. Unfortunately, said potshots won’t make the movie any less entertaining. The reason people will pile on this film has nothing to do with its ideas and everything to do with its effectiveness. If Moore was a moviemaking incompetent, unable to maintain a level of interest in what is an inherently intriguing idea, then his efforts would tour a few underground film festivals and that’s it. But people will be lining up to learn the lessons this director wants to discuss, and it’s the intrinsic draw of film that has opponents flummoxed.

If Moore was inherently wrong with what he puts out in SiCKO, that would be one thing. He’s not using one or two rare instances to make a gross overgeneralization about the US Health Care system. Instead, he is avoiding the 10 or 20% of satisfied citizens to focus on the far more prevalent problems. It’s not a question of balance – if 10 people out of 100 get good, trouble free service, representing their viewpoint does not provide equilibrium to the situation with the other 90. Neither does pointing out the number of areas where America beats the rest of the world in medical technology. Saving lives is one thing. Having access to the science that does such rescuing is the issue at hand. It is conceivable that the citizens of the countries Moore champions would have varying versions of their socialized medicines success. But complaining that problems exist in an arguably imperfect system is like saying an inexact science is wrong now and again. Besides, what’s more important – the fact that everyone is covered, or that when such universal coverage is in place, flaws are inevitably found? 

There will be those who cannot forgive his histrionics, who see him standing on Cuban soil, chronically ill volunteers from 9/11 in tow, calling over to Guantanamo Bay and asking for the same health care that we are giving to the terrorists, and complain about the obvious exploitation. Others will attack the man and consider it a criticism of the movie. But in a nation of apathetic arrogance, that has begun to believe much of its own hyped hubris, SiCKO needs to be seen. It does the two most potent things any successful screed can – it enlightens while it entertains. In addition, it sets the tone for the rest of the debate, providing proof against all the industry apologists while offering potential solutions, no matter how suspect. It’s what any good discussion should encompass. It’s also the foundation for any masterful film…and SiCKO definitely falls into that category.


by Bill Gibron

25 Jun 2007

As June comes crawling to a close, the final retail Tuesday sees some interesting choices, all available at your favorite local home entertainment emporium. Granted, they tend to represent the less than successful members of the mainstream set, movies that failed to make their mark at the box office four to six months ago, and are just now seeing a seismic turnaround onto the fiscally friendly format. But there is a great deal to enjoy here, including a solid second film from a critically acclaimed director,  a stereotypical uplifting sports film, a by-the-numbers actioner and one of the most intelligent looks at the horror film ever created. Toss in some off title entities and the usual under-performing suspects, and its standard Summertime fare. While it would probably do better come October, SE&L suggests you forget the sunshine and pick up its selection for 26 June. It will have you thinking of Fall’s autumnal terrors lickety-split:

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Vernon Leslie

Attention all horror fans – it’s time to rejoice. After six months of fading fortunes at the box office, there’s a new scare sheriff in town, and his name is Scott Glosserman. An obvious genre maven, this first time filmmaker has crafted one of the cleverest, most inventive movie macabre spoofs since Wes Craven made us Scream. Using the novel idea that all slasher serial killers (Jason, Freddy, Michael) are real, and that they all conform to a kind of slice and dice code of ethics (can’t enter closets, must locate virgin to act as ‘survivor girl’), Glosserman deconstructs the ‘80s splatter favorites and turns them into psychological studies worthy of Freud. Then we meet the title character, a mass murderer wannabe who has hired a documentary film crew to follow him around. It’s their interaction, and the last act switch into a standard scary movie, that really sells this sensational experiment. If you’ve been burned by the recent redundant dread, give this indie effort a shot. You’ll be glad you did.

Other Titles of Interest

Black Snake Moan

For a follow up to his wildly successful Hustle and Flow, writer/director Craig Brewer decided to go down the old fashioned exploitation route. He came up with a story about a black blues musician taking a slutty white girl under his wing, attempting to cure her ‘provocative’ ways by chaining her up. While it wants to be a Baby Doll for the new millennium, there’s more tenderness than taboo here.

Dead Silence

It took James Wan almost three years to return with an answer to the massive sophomore success of Saw. The result was this movie macabre oddity, the story of a killer ventriloquist and her possessed dummies from Hell! Trying to fuse old school terror with nods to both the Italian and Japanese styles of horror, many fans failed to see the fright. DVD will be the perfect place to rediscover this potential cult classic.

Peaceful Warrior

Victor Salva is at it again. No, not THAT. Instead, he is making yet another film about a loner like teenage boy looking for guidance, and in this case, finding it from a kindly older man. Salva’s scandalous past, including a conviction for child molestation, doesn’t seem to deter his directorial fortunes. While other artists struggle to get movies made, he consistently finds films to forward. Such is the weird workings of the industry.


At this point in the genre, it must be harder and harder to find motivational stories of unlikely sports teams beating the odds and showing the status quo that they too matter. But this tale of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swim club started by urban do-gooder Jim Ellis (a decent Terence Howard) has a nice period feel, as well as an inspirational hook that most movies of its type can’t match.


Mark Walhberg is a marksman lured out of hiding to protect the President from assassination. Naturally, he is double crossed and accused of the eventual crime. What follows is another standard big budget action extravaganza with too much bombast and not enough believability. It’s a shame that director Antoine Fuqua has had such a troubled time of late. All Tru Blu scuffle aside, he remains a promising feature filmmaker.

And Now for Something Completely Different
Frankenstein Conquers the World/ Frankenstein vs. Baragon

It has to have one of the greatest premises of any Toho production. The heart of Frankenstein’s monster is recovered from a European stronghold during WWII, and is kept in a Japanese lab. When the Hiroshima bomb is dropped, the organ takes on a life of its own. Soon, it’s guiding a feral boy with a freakish facial deformity. Baragon shows up, and the two square off in standard man in suit style. Originally scheduled as another Godzilla sequel, this unusual take on the giant monster movie has to be seen to be believed. And what makes matters even more unbelievable, DVD distributor Tokyo Shock is giving this far out film the two disc special edition treatment. Offering both the original and English language versions, as well as commentary and other contextual tidbits, we gain insight into series creator Ishirô Honda, and how seriously said film were taken. Fortunately, for us, it’s all fun and foolishness.


by Bill Gibron

24 Jun 2007

It’s enough to make fans of Disney’s old fashioned artistry weep openly. On 19 June, Sharon Morrill, longtime President of the company’s DisneyToons Studios, was out of a job. Throughout the course of her 13 years as head of said division, Morrill led the animation giant into one of its most profitable – and controversial – ventures ever: the reconfiguration of classic cartoon titles into cheap, easily knocked-off, direct to home video sequels. From Brother Bear II and various configurations of Lilo and Stitch to the complete bastardization of timeless treasures like Bambi, Peter Pan and Cinderella, the studios desire to maximize profitability (and trade on its Good Housekeeping Seal level of reputation) did more to destroy the marquee value of the studios most important asset – it’s heritage – than anything else in its 85 year history.

At least, that’s what John Lasseter and Ed Catmull thought. Back when Disney was courting Pixar for some manner of partnership/revenue sharing agreement, the eventual buyout of the CGI gods brought two of its chief components into brand new roles at the House of Mouse. Lasseter was named Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, while Catmull was put in charge as President. Both wanted to drastically alter the direction the business was going it. Prior to their taking over, Uncle Walt’s world had just announced a decision to abandon traditional pen and ink cartoons, instead opting for the fading fad of 3D computer creations. But with the box office failings of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, the new duo decided to reverse the ridiculous decision. In fact, Mickey’s kingdom made headlines earlier this year when a new 2D title, featuring the first heroine of color in any Disney cartoon, was proposed (it will be called The Princess and the Frog and is set for 2009).

Next on the agenda – the seemingly endless stream of subpar product pouring out of Morrill’s sector. Now, it has to be said that this effective executive is playing scapegoat for a series of practices that has haunted the studio since The Lion King resurrected Disney’s blockbuster realities. Previously, both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had reestablished the company’s artistic fortunes, but King’s kid friendly storyline brought in the big bucks – and the suits (including former CEO Michael Eisner) were looking for more. Along with Aladdin, the Mouse House saw a way of quickly and efficiently maximizing their returns. They would take all the left over footage created for their animated films, and make rapid turnaround sequels, striking while the interest irons were hot. Believe it or not, full length cartoons can be completely reworked between the script and drawing stage, and even more changes can occur once test screenings dictate the direction. So it was a win-win for the company. It used up some of the otherwise useless material, and extended a title’s potential payout.

With well received direct to video efforts like Return of Jafar and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, the stage was set for a whole new revenue stream. And the marketplace was more than eager to open their billfolds. Back in the mid-‘80s, when the VCR became the de facto babysitter for hundreds of blasé boomer parents, Disney was the name everyone turned to. Warners was viewed as too archaic (and violent) while other cartoon wares were dismissed as artificial and driven by commercial considerations (product tie-ins, etc.). No, Uncle Walt and his magical world was the way to go for most enlightened Moms and Dads, and with the company’s oddly effective embargo policies (a famous title would go on sale, only to be pulled from stores a few months later and mothballed for up to seven years) any additional Disney release was greeted with wide wallets. 

Thus, the vaults were unsealed, and any and all previous material was up for sequelization. Initially, no one much cared. These were offerings aimed at the wee ones, starter sets, if you will, for unformed minds. The hope was that, as the big budget theatrical releases cemented their status as unpolished gems, the direct to video films would fill in the gaps, appeasing a rabid retail demographic until the sell through hit came along. DVD threw the company a curve ball it wasn’t expecting, and it didn’t win over many fans with its decision to go with the pay-to-play technology known as DIVX. In truth, Disney badly mismanaged the transfer over to digital, and had to try and catch up with the rest of the industry throughout most the late ‘90s. The glut of releases, combined with the fading fortunes of their theatrical efforts (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and Home on the Range all tanked) placed the company in a precarious position.

It was Morrill and her division that kept them afloat. It was also her decisions that finally pushed matters over the edge. Since she took over in 1994, DisneyToons Studios produced almost 50 ‘original’ titles. Many took already established series (Winnie the Pooh, The Adventures of Goofy) and continued the franchise. Others were far more questionable, utilizing beloved favorites (Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, Pinocchio) as jumping off points for narratively inconsistent efforts. While it acted as a cash machine for the company, it also created an artistic impact that few could have envisioned. In essence, the direct to video offerings diluted the original films, making them feel like part of a production line process instead of individual statements of creative pride. Slowly but surely, each new Disney release was viewed through a veiled cloud of cynicism – and it was a suspicion rewarded when, less than a year later, an ‘all new’ sequel was waiting for your mindless consumption.

Granted, it was a brilliant strategy, one based on the inherent disconnect the audience had for the original sources. Kids, by their very nature, are not the most discerning consumers. They will take anything that provides 60 to 90 minutes of bright colored craziness, as long as it satisfies their sugar-rush reality. They could care less if Belle’s Magical World is based on an Oscar nominated masterpiece. They want more anthropomorphic objects and they want them now. So all Morrill did was deliver what the buyer was craving – more and more monotonous eye candy for the children to chew on while forcing Fruit Roll-ups into their craw. They even went so far as to restructure theatrical films into long running TV series – Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers, Tale Spin – anything for a bit more black ink.

But not even Disney could have predicted Pixar’s eventual importance to the genre. It couldn’t have conceived the mainstream hysteria over the smugly ironic 3D offerings from Dreamworks and Fox. Suddenly, Mickey’s Manor was trailing in the artform it helped build from the ground up, and all it had was Lasseter’s computer generated gems to rely on. It tried its own hand at bitmap rendering (Dinosaurs being a decent example), but overall, Walt’s ways were viewed as old fashioned, behind the times, and perhaps worst of all, completely antithetical to the bottom line. Along with soon to be exiting Eisner, Morrill had made the once proud name of Disney into a trademark tainted by nothing but dollar signs.

The final straw was a fairy, apparently. Lasseter’s tenure as Chief Creative Officer was cutthroat from the very beginning. He restarted 2D animation, backed off the company’s CG only stance, and started dropping proposed Morrill merchandise (The Aristocats II, The Ugly Duckling Story) left and right. But it wasn’t until he saw the horrendous (and soon to be released) The Tinkerbell Story that Mr. Pixar was convinced that Morrill had to go. Taking the classic character and trying to cram her into a Bratz like girl power paradigm seemed unthinkable. In addition, this sloppy salvo was just the opening tact in an overall product strategy that seemed based on marketing research and consulting rather than creativity and artistry.

Calling it “unwatchable” Lasseter demanded a change. With pal Catmull at his side, they pulled the plug on Morrill’s tenure, and decided to take DisneyToon’s Studio in a slightly different direction. Instead of pulling from the classics catalog, the sector will now draw from the wealth of content currently available on the Playhouse Disney Channel. There will still be a few left over sequels to contractually cater to (The Little Mermaid III for one), but after that, the House of Mouse will have reformed their warping ways – and for many, it may be too little too late. While the founding father himself must be smiling over the Lasseter/Catmull hire, he has to be worried about the longevity and legacy of the company named after him. Prior to the ‘80s, Disney was known for timeless, quality family entertainment. Today, it’s sneered at, earning a tag of merchandising charlatans, whoring out their traditions for the sake of some extra sales.

But it goes far beyond that. Like many corporate entities in the last two decades, Disney decided to stop making product for the people, and instead, manufactured artifice for its bean counters. Just like Hollywood’s micromanaged motion pictures, purposefully cobbled together out of various clichés and stereotypes to be everything to every paying patron, the business plan didn’t care that its animated films were flopping. They had built in so many potential ways of recouping their costs (between direct to video, merchandising and theme parks tie-ins) that it didn’t matter. Mediocrity could be as lucrative as a masterwork. And with the trend away from 2D animation and the seemingly untouchable magic of Pixar, there was no need to push itself.

Thankfully, Lasseter and Catmull are now in charge, and while they have a long way to go toward achieving the near impossible – rebuilding the company’s creative fortunes – they’ve taken a remarkable first step. There will be those who lament not having another narrative go round with their favorite characters, and parents may wonder what they will do once the Disney cartoon conveyor belt comes to a screeching halt, but for the men behind the recent radical restructuring, protecting this cinematic symbol’s tattered and tarnished reputation seems like a wise executive decision. The House of Mouse may never go back to an impervious icon of quality and family friendly filmmaking, but it can at least reclaim some of its soul. With Morrill’s departure, the process has already begun.

by Bill Gibron

23 Jun 2007

When someone says they don’t make movies like they used to, they are probably referring to a title like 1408. Reviving a lost subgenre like the psychological thriller is not an easy task, and when you consider the author of the source material is none other than cinematic hit or miss Stephen King, the odds are substantially stacked against you. Even worse, the release carries a PG-13 rating, which tells most dread die-hards that the narrative they’re about to see has been sanitized for the protection of the viewing public. The final nail in the nonevent coffin is the presence of Swedish unknown Mikael Håfström behind the lens. While his native language efforts have been well received, his 2005 disaster Derailed doesn’t speak well for his ability with suspense.

Luckily, the planets were all in alignment when stars Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusack decided to take on this basically two person drama, and the results more than speak for themselves. While not actually scary, 1408 is unsettling and intense, taking its own sweet time building to a truly disconcerting climax. Predating post-modern horror by a chainsaw or two, and delivering ample angst without having to resort to bloodshed or gratuity, Håfström helms the perfect antidote to all the ‘gorno’ currently claiming the creepshow mantel. His take on King’s sensational short story is a devious little mind game, an eerie examination of one man’s inner demons and how those pent up issues can do much more than haunt a human soul. They can take on an afterlife in the real world as well.

Cynical as hell and falsely heroic, Cusack is Mike Enslin, a writer of horror-themed travel guides. He visits supposedly haunted locales and writes up reviews, Michelin style, of their significant scare factors. Of course, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a dyed in the wool skeptic and blames desperate hotel owners for concocting – and in some cases, creating – the spook shows for the benefit of their lagging bottom line. One day, Enslin receives a postcard warning him away from the title room, a particularly evil space in New York’s old money Dolphin Hotel. Only problem is, the establishment won’t let him in. After confronting manager Gerald Olin (a smooth and suave Samuel L.) over occupancy, Enslin gets his wish – and a warning. No one has ever lasted more than an hour in the room, the result being death, or dementia. It’s the kind of challenge Enslin can’t pass up. Once he’s inside 1408, however, he realizes he should have heeded Olin’s advice.

To go any further in the plot summary would ruin 1408’s many macabre moments (though, as usual, the preview trailers have happily spoiled more than one). To his credit, Håfström doesn’t rush his prologue. We get to know Mike Enslin very well, his superstitious little quirks, the stinging sarcasm covering up for deep personal pain, and as he moves ever so steadily toward his confrontation with the name terror, we begin to build up a lot of sympathy and caring for him. True, this is your typical King protagonist – self destructive and markedly egotistic, requiring a kind of metaphysical just deserts to reset his stagnant priorities – but thanks to Cusack’s ability to humanize Enslin’s hubris, we find ourselves on the world weary writer’s side. On the other hand, Sam Jackson is not given much to do, but what he has to work with is choice. His initial meeting with Cusack is so classic in its performance potency, it’s like the Closer’s Contest pitch made by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry, Glen Ross.

While there are other famous names in the cast – Tony Shalhoub as Enslin’s publisher, Mary McCormack as his distant wife – they are more like cameos. This is Cusack’s show almost exclusively and your reactions will be wholly based on how you connect with him. He gives an amazing turn, on screen alone for minutes at a time and capturing completely a man caught off guard by circumstances he didn’t anticipate. Nothing is more deliciously enjoyable than watching a know it all proven unprepared, and the initial scenes where room 1408 starts to take on a life of its own offers the actor at his best. Later on, Cusack must turn on the waterworks and the histrionics, and for the most part, he keeps his obvious emotions in check. It’s a tour de force, and the production couldn’t have picked a better star to handle it.

On the other hand, Håfström’s work is much more subtle. There are riffs to many previous King adaptations (The Shining and The Dark Half for starters) and this Swedish cinephile understands the basic elements of suspense. There are several edge of the seat sequences in 1408, moments where we fear, along with our hero, what’s around the next corner, or waiting for us in the shadows of the ceiling vent. This is not a film that wants to quicken your pulse or send shockwaves through your spine so much as deliberately dig down just beneath the top layers of your flesh to settle in under your skin. For every set piece of rushing water, freezing interior spaces and grue-gushing walls, there are small, seemingly insignificant beats which tend to amplify the angst. There are even a couple of epic CG shots to spice up the spectacle. But by constantly keeping the film founded in the personal, Håfström’s paranormal excesses work that much better.

It has to be said that the last few decades, a time that literally redefined and reconfigured the thriller/chiller genre, will render 1408 inconsequential to some fright fans. For them, nothing says fear like flowing rivers of bodily fluids, along with the occasional misplaced organ. Others need the celluloid rollercoaster simulation – build-up/release, build-up/release – of the genres more extreme examples. But when you look at how well made and managed this movie is, when you recognize that the seemingly random scenes all have a logical reason to exist (and potentially payoff in the end) you can’t deny 1408’s effectiveness. You can mock its casual style and lack of aggressive arterial spray, but the refreshing nature of such a narrative twist will end up annoying only the most narrow-minded of macabre mavens.

For everyone else, 1408 will be a nostalgic callback to a time when films used ideas and invention to sell its scares. There is nary a moment of snuff stunt showboating or special effects sluice to be seen. In its place are tight construction, tripwire direction, superb acting, and an uncomfortable sense of the sinister. While it may not answer the near half century old debate regarding subtlety vs. splatter as the most successful fear factor, Håfström’s engaging experiment in unforced fright is well worth a look. It definitely defines the kind of movies old fashioned film fans pine for – and may even capture the imagination of the contemporary doom and gloom crowd as well.

7 out of 10

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