[1 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Who really controls the content of a film – the director or the audience? To hear most professionals tell it, the endless stream of input from focus groups, test screenings, and the MPAA does more to influence a final cut than artistic vision or cinematic scope. Sure, a filmmaker starts with the movie modeling clay (actors, script, location, effects) but he or she is required to pass through a gauntlet of editorial considerations before their effort ever sees the light of a projector. It’s one of the main reasons why the DVD format has been so popular. It has legitimized the so-called “director’s cut” of a film while providing access to deleted scenes, extended sequences, and supplemental explanations of the entire post-production process. While insightful, it can also be frustrating. On rare occasions, indulging the creator only confirms the need for broader motion picture perspective.
Proof of this dilemma arrives in the new two disc collector’s edition release (from Genius Products and the Weinstein Group) of the summer sleeper 1408. Adapted from a Stephen King short story and helmed by Swedish newcomer Mikael Håfström, this old fashioned thriller connected with audiences unwilling to deal with the post-millennial ideal of splatter shock horror. Instead, this psychological creep out reminded viewers of the days when ideas, not atrocities, made the average fright fan’s skin crawl. A serviceable hit, the brand new digital release is giving those interested a chance to see something rare – a slightly different interpretation of the film, including additional scenes, a tad more blood, and an ending in keeping with the original script’s intent.
For those unfamiliar with the storyline, John Cusack plays Mike Enslin. An accomplished novelist at one time, our scribe now spends his days visiting supposedly haunted locations and writing critical assessments of the places for traveler’s guidebooks. When he receives a postcard from New York’s Dolphin Hotel containing a cryptic message (“Don’t Enter 1408”), he’s immediately intrigued. But when he tries to stay in the noted room, manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) refuses access. There have been 56 deaths in 1408 over the last century, most of them unexplained and quite nasty. Undaunted, Enslin demands entrance. What he finds in the smartly furnished accommodations is a horrible history of evil. He also comes face to face with past tragedies and his own simmering psychological issues.
One earns a greater appreciation for Håfström’s talent when the extended “director’s cut” is screened, however. The inclusion of more backstory, a clearer definition of what haunts 1408, and why Mike Enslin was “called” to the location in the first place, fleshes out a film that, on occasion, felt like a mere exercise in eerie vs. a wholly realized narrative. As not to spoil the surprises, the new version makes Enslin more of a participant and less of a victim. He stands for something now instead of simply being the casualty of a spooky space gone goofy. In the informative commentary track that accompanies the revamp (there is no such discussion on the theatrical release), Håfström, Alexander, and Karaszewski make it very clear that their ideas for the film flew directly in the path that preview participants wanted events to take. While they’re not unhappy with the finished product, this longer look at 1408 is closer to what they had in mind.
In either case, the film remains a tour de force – of acting, of atmosphere, and of movie macabre archeology. Like The Legend of Hell House moved uptown, 1408 focuses on tone and mood more than actual haunted happenings. Certainly we see paintings come to life and walls weep and bleed, but this is not some slice and dice death dream populated by decapitated ghouls and entrail-eating demons. Instead, all the terror comes directly from John Cusack’s amazing performance, and he takes on the role with verve and gusto. Unlike previous films where the actor seems to be channeling his still simmering post-adolescent smarm, Mike Enslin is very much an adult – a man ridden hard by life’s inexplicable lessons and left to suffer through the resulting setbacks.
When you add in the mysterious menace of Samuel L. Jackson (proving he can make the most meaningless role thrive) and the comforting calm of Mary McCormack as Enslin’s estranged wife, you’ve got a collection of performances that really payoff – and thanks to the new redux of the film, their presence is even more important. Olin is just as much a catalyst as a character here, while Lily’s shattered security seems to help her husband make his final determinations. The additional deleted and/or extended scenes further expand the interactive dynamic between the trio, including moments of imminent danger for all and the siren’s allure of 1408. In fact, Håfström was clearly out to make a personal story. The fear factors are just added ambience.
When taken together, everything accomplished as part of 1408 places the film firmly on a level with other inferential entertainments – movies with names like The Haunting and Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of King’s The Shining. In fact, this movie frequently feels more successful then either of those pictures since Håfström was able to realize his loftier ambitions with the help of clever F/X and modern technological advances. The featurettes found on the second disc illustrate how helpful such cinematic science can be, while the director himself argues for his own clever choices (filming on a closed set, emphasizing the ‘banality of evil’ theme). We wind up with a greater appreciation for this taut little thriller, as well as all the decisions that made it a reality.
In the end, though, it’s hard to argue with either presentation of this fine film. The theatrical version literally leaps off the screen with kinetic frighteners, bringing the hair rising, spine tingling terror directly into your subconscious. Håfström’s update is like other successful King translations (Misery, The Dead Zone) in that it finds the scares as well as the sentiment behind them. In either case, we get classic movie macabre at its most capable and considered. While the rest of the genre bathes in blood and freefalls through a chasm of cruelty, smart supernatural thrillers like this argue for the future of the format. And thanks to DVD, director’s hindered by stagnant audience ideas get a chance to express themselves properly. Like 1408, it’s win/win for all involved.