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Sunday, September 2, 2007

1408 (2007) - Mikael Hafstrom

There have been a great many of Stephen King's books and short stories that have been adapted into movies. Some have been great, like The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption and Carrie. And some have been, well, crap. Needful Things, Children of the Corn and, um.... The Lawnmower Man (shudder). Certainly, when it comes to adaptations, King must be one of the most adapted of authors. Over the years, I've enjoyed a great many of these adaptations. So it was with a certain amount of excitement that I went to see his latest adaptation, 1408, directed by Swedish director, Mikael Hafstrom.

John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, an author who specialises in the paranormal. As the film opens, we meet Mike as he researches his latest book, a kind of tourist guide to haunted hotels. It quickly becomes apparent that Mike was once a legitimate novelist. However, over the years he's become disillusioned, and while researching and documenting paranormal phenomena has become his job, he maintains a stark cynicism towards not only the spiritual world, but also the existence of god. After an accident while surfing, Enslin receives a post card from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City. The postcard reads only 'Don't enter 1408.' Naturally, Enslin's interest is piqued and he sets about booking a night in the Dolphin's 1408. There, he meets Gerard Olin, the manager of the Dolphin. Olin is vehement that Enslin does not stay in 1408. Over the years, the room has seen many bizarre deaths, and Olin does not want to clean up another. But Enslin is adamant, and gets his wish. He books into the room and begins a night that will test his sanity to it's limits.

Having grown up on a strict diet of horror movies, I've become very disillusioned with Hollywood's treatment of the genre over the last few years. I guess in a way, that disillusion is somewhat misplaced, as the horror genre has always been on the fringes of the mainstream. The great horror movies have been made by unknown directors (some of whom forged very successful careers in the industry), passionate about creating films to terrify audiences. But over the last few years horror has simply become a place where film makers can chuck buckets of blood at the screen, causing audiences to squirm with disgust rather than terror. So it's nice to see there are still, occasionally, films made that rely on psychology and good old fashioned camera and editing tricks (and a bit of CGI for good measure) to get scares out of the audience. 1408 isn't the scariest film I've seen. But it's still pretty good.

To be honest, 1408 is more of a psychological thriller than a horror movie. Parallels can be drawn between it and a previous (and much better) Stephen King adaptation, The Shining. They're both about authors. They're both about hotels. They're both about a father's relationship with his child. But that's where the similarities really end. 1408 is pretty much a one man show. Cusack is alone in the hotel room for almost the entirety of the film. The room is pushing him to the limits of his sanity. It wants to torture his mind to the point where he will kill himself. Cusack's performance is what the film really rests on. He has nobody to work off. He has to create the tension and drama pretty much alone. And it's to his credit that he does this quite successfully. Cusack's one of the most likable actors working (who doesn't like Cusack, honestly?!) and while Enslin isn't a particularly nice guy, you do find yourself sympathetic towards the guy. Samuel L. Jackson's role as Gerard Olin is little more than a cameo, but it's a pivotal cameo, as he sets the scene for Enslin and the audience and he does this very well.

Halfstrom's direction is pretty good. He sets up the scares pretty well. He keeps the film focused on Cusack's battle of wits with the room and occasionally throws the odd CGI moment in without making them too jarring. If there's any fault in the film it's that, after a very good first hour, the last act sort of loses it's way a little. It's a shame really, because if it had stayed as taught and smoothly flowing as the first half of the film, 1408 could have been a classic. It's nice to finally see a horror (or psychological thriller to the more pedantic of readers) that doesn't go for tired, repetitive, hackneyed blood and guts garbage that's about as scary as a teddy bear... unless that teddy bear gets up and walks towards you. And it's good to see a pretty decent Stephen King adaptation. But I still wait for one of those rare movies that literally terrifies me to my core. Not since Hideo Nakata's Ringu have I experienced it, and it didn't happen with 1408. An excellent John Cusack performance, and a pretty good if not great film.


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