Friday, June 29, 2007
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Jasmine Jessica Anthony, Tony Shalhoub
Running Time: 94 min.
*** (out of ****)
It seems that over the past couple of years a new genre of film has been popping up in Hollywood: The PG-13 rated horror movie. While that label may initially cause some eye rolling and a fear the film has been watered down to be marketed to a broader audience, it doesn't have to be a death sentence. Director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) wisely realizes this and when the film ended I was convinced it probably wouldn't have been as effective without that rating. In an age where we're bombarded by graphic images of violence and gore in such horror films as the Saw and Hostel franchises, it's a relief to see a film that actually builds suspense and carries as much impact for what it doesn't show than what it does. Of course, the catch here is that you risk boring current audiences weaned on plenty of blood and non-stop thrills.
1408 is a whole lot smarter and subtler than it lets on and may qualify as one of the best Stephen King horror adaptations ever lensed. It also eliminates a problem that has plagued Stephen King's writing throughout his career: endings. As the film approached the third act I was almost looking at my watch waiting for the film to collapse. That didn't happen. The ending isn't perfect and the last act does have some minor problems for sure, but overall it wraps up well, something I can't honestly say about any King adaptation outside of the Shawshank Redemption. The film also contains a remarkably complex lead performance from an actor we take for granted. Often times I've watched a film and thought to myself a certain role just wouldn't have been the same if it were played by someone else. That's never been truer here as John Cusack, forced to basically perform a one-man show, gives one of the most memorable performances of his career.
Cusack is Mike Enslin, a one-time best-selling travel author known for his novels on paranormal activities at allegedly haunted hotels. One of the clever early scenes in the film show an in-store book signing for which only three people have shown up. For all of Mike's work in the paranormal and all the hotels he's stayed at, he's never once seen a ghost of any kind so obviously he's skeptical upon receiving a mysterious postcard urging him to check out room 1408 at The Dolphin Hotel in New York City. Mike, still grieving over the death of his daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) and separation from his wife (Mary McCormack) sees this as a challenge. It's here that movie does something very, very smart. Mike arrives at the hotel assuming he can just check into 1408, but first he must first deal with the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), who does everything in his power to convince him that checking into this room is the biggest mistake of his life. He recounts the room's history, which includes 50 deaths ranging in everything from strangulation to drowning. No one has ever lasted past 60 minutes.
The casting of Jackson in this role is ingenius and more crucial to the film's success than it will probably get credit for. I don't know about you but if Samuel L. Jackson tells me I better not do something, I'm going to listen. That Mike doesn't helps establish his stubbornness and cynicism, and makes the terror that unfolds later that much more effective. Watching actors of the caliber of Cusack and Jackson go at each other is a real treat and their scene together was so entertaining I didn't want it to end. The scene is also incredibly effective in building up the room as a threat. So many other movies wouldn't have the patience and just thrown him in there right away. This film really takes its time, building very slowly until, when he finally enters the room, it's a huge deal.
That this room is, for the most part, just as insidious and terrifying as Jackson's character hypes it up to be is quite an accomplishment. Even when we do get into the room Hafstrom takes things slowly and the suspense becomes almost unbearable. And then…he pulls the trigger. Interestingly though, he even does this methodically, slowly unraveling the terror that resides in this evil room. The picture that's just slightly out of place, the clock radio that won't stop blasting The Carpenters, the broken thermostat, strange phone calls. Everything feels important, which is rare these days for a horror film. When the action does really kick in the movie cleverly plays with dislocation of time and place, creating a surreal atmosphere in which Mike, or the viewer, is never quite sure how much of what's happening in this room is real or hallucinated.The room uses his past against him and it becomes clear this isn't just about a stay in a haunted hotel room. It's a morality play and Mike Enslin is battling to save his soul.
I've previously expressed how much I love movies where the action takes place within a certain time limit or characters have a certain amount of time to accomplish something. I've noted that I can't remember a single movie that used this device and wasn't successful. Add another one to the list. Here, it's made even more tense by the fact most of this film takes place in one location, adding a sense of immediacy and claustrophobia to the story. It also helps that we're trapped in this room with an actor who brings as much to the role as Cusack. Early on he knows just how to play dry and sarcastic without going too far and then he believably deteriorates into a man who's slowly losing his grip on reality and descending into madness. That's not easy to do, and it's even harder when you're acting alone for much of the picture. We also feel sympathy for him because Cusack has a gift as an actor in getting us to relate to him as a decent guy. No matter how quirky or zany his character's behavior may be, he somehow makes it seem normal. The film may not be perfect, but his performance definitely is.
I think Hafstrom may have pushed one manipulative button too many with the flashback scenes of his daughter (although it says a lot about Cusack's performance that we hardly notice) and the final act of the film, with all its natural disasters, feels more like The Day After Tomorrow than a horror film. Some may also complain that the movie has a number of false endings (one in particular), but I won't since I was just so relieved none of those endings turned out to be the real one. I suppose you could argue the actual ending of the film is open for interpretation or ambiguous, but I don't think it is. That the film had a couple of false finishes before the real one is probably what's causing the skepticism. It does, however, say a lot about the intelligence of the movie that people are looking for something more hiding under the surface. Regardless, the ending works and closes out in a way I found satisfying and rather direct, at least for a King adaptation.
Those going into 1408 expecting a rip-off of The Shining will be pleasantly surprised to find out there's really a lot more going on than meets the eye. Even though it's not directed with a great deal of visual style, and when it ended I didn't find anything about it incredibly unforgettable, days after certain scenes would pop back up in my head. I realize now that the film was suspenseful and somewhat scary, a tough goal to achieve for a PG-13 rated film. Ironically, between the critical and commercial success of this and Disturbia a couple of months ago you have to wonder if audiences have had it with all the blood and gore. The box office failure of Hostel Part II may be further evidence. The success of this film proves the horror genre is definitely not dead, but rather, its priorities may have just shifted.