1408 is a bit of a throwback: its screenwriters and director figure that a hotel room can be more frightening than an abattoir, sewer system, or hidden lavatory in an abandoned train station. They also figure that real fear comes from the development of character, delving into a character’s fears and playing upon them. They’re right…
As we first encounter Mike Enslin [John Cusak], he’s driving to an allegedly haunted bed & breakfast. After spending the night and finding nothing, he dejectedly heads home to a stack of mail – which seems to
be split between bills and enticements to visit other haunted places. We learnthat he’s written such books as 10 Haunted Hotels, 10 Haunted Mansions, 10 Haunted… well, you get the idea.
There’s something off about Enslin, too. Despite Cusak turning on the charm, there’s something going on behind his stock smiles, smirks and tics… something – dare we say – haunted. When he claims to want to
experience a true haunting, we know that he’s being one hundred percent truthful – and we instinctively want to know why.
Then, he finds a postcard from The Dolphin Hotel in New York – inscribed with the message “Do not enter 1408.” When he tries to reserve the
room for a one-night stay, he is rebuffed. Rebuffed to the point that he has his publisher [Tony Shalhoub] look into it – and discovers there’s a law that says a hotel must give a customer a requested room if that room is not occupied.
Armed with this knowledge, Enslin attempts to register at The Dolphin, where he finds himself being dissuaded by the manager, Gerald Olin
[Samuel L. Jackson]. After attempts to bribe him [involving a bottle of eight hundred dollar liquor; Knicks tickets and more] fail, Olin tries to scare him with the room’s record of deaths – but Enslin knows all about the suicides, murders and such. What he doesn’t know is about the twenty-two deaths by natural causes! In all, fifty-six deaths have occurred in the room. And so, Mike Enslin enters room 1408…
There have been some great movie adaptations of Stephen King’s work, but there have been more stinkers. Screenwriters Matt Greenberg,
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski – and director Mikael Hafstrom – just happen to be on the same page as King. They understand, intuitively, that for any horror movie to have a lasting effect on its audience, it has to be more than bloodletting and decapitations.
As the film progresses, we learn more and more about Mike Enslin and the tragedy that has placed that pain and haunted look behind his
eyes. In true King fashion, 1408’s creative team understands that the best way to get an audience to care about a character is to make us laugh with him while we’re learning who he is. If we can laugh with him, we will care enough to jump when he jumps and worry when things go south on him.They also understand that the best horror comes from the unexpected use of everyday things in bizarre ways. After seeing 1408, you might see digital clock-radios, Wal-Mart paintings and micro-recorders [among other things] just a little bit differently…
As I’ve mentioned above, John Cusak gives a smart performance and really brings us into the film – but it’s Samuel L. Jackson’s
Gerald Olin who adds a certain mischief to the piece that really enhances the script’s rather offbeat sense of humor. In the final scenes of the film, their performances reach a logical conclusion that is, even then, completely unexpected – giving us two last little jolts.
Hafstrom plays with his shot composition in the hotel room. We get every odd angle he requires, and his use of light really accents the
growing terror Enslin experiences. There are some great physical gags and some equally terrific CG bits, and it’s pretty impossible to tell which are which. Over the course of the movie, Hafstrom takes a number of horror tropes and twists them in fresh ways [check out the window ledge escape…] and never slows the pace so much that the audience disengages.
It’s hard to think of a successful horror flick as delightful, but 1408 is all that and a back of chips. The use of humor is surgically precise – both in terms of timing and intensity. There are more than enough jump moments, too – all of them earned. And at a sleek ninety-six minutes [about ninety minus the closing credits], 1408 turns in more genuine thrills than any half-dozen gorno/torture porn flicks.
Final Grade: A-