[23 June 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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