1408 (2007) — Stephen King done right

“Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room!”

Al’s rating: Now this is how you tell a story in a hotel room. Neil Simon, eat your heart out!

Al’s review: 1408 is Stephen King done right. It’s taken a long time and there have been a lot of trip-ups, missteps, and flat-out cinematic faceplants *cough*Dreamcatcher*cough*, but finally we’ve been given another film that can join the ranks of quality SK adaptations, an exclusive little club I like to call ‘movies I can count on one hand.’ Thank God.

John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a talented author who has given up novels and now makes his living as a second-rate ghostbuster, staying overnight in haunted places and writing spooky stories about everything that was purported to have happened there (even though he never sees anything). After a particularly self-destructive book signing, Mike sets his sights on The Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan and the deadly legends of Room 1408.

But, unlike most of the Ma & Pa bed and breakfasts that don’t want to shut up about their sordid histories, no one at The Dolphin seems to want to talk much about 1408. In fact, the general manager, Gerald Olin (an excellently intense Samuel L. Jackson), does everything in his power to stop him from staying in that room. 1408, it seems, isn’t haunted or possessed by some wayward spirit or angry poltergeist, Jackson warns. It’s simply “an evil f***ing room.” There have been 56 deaths since 1938, and no one has ever stayed there for more than an hour.

Undeterred, Mike is led up to the room, which he finds depressingly normal. Except its soon apparent that things… aren’t. There are just little oddities – mints reappearing on his pillow, the sink sprays hot water instead of cold. Small things. Nothing to worry about. Then later, it gets a bit more uncomfortable: the thermostat is stuck at 80 degrees. Mike’s hand is slammed in the window. The alarm clock spontaneously plays “We’ve Only Just Begun” at full volume. It’s a bit disquieting, but, then, with the right soundtrack, it could be a scene out of The Money Pit. Mike soldiers on. Then he starts hearing voices. He starts seeing people. And other things. Odder things. Things that you can’t pass off on tricks of the light or hypnagogic hallucination. By the time he realizes that 1408 is for real, it’s almost certainly too late and Mike is fighting to hold onto his sanity for as long as he can — if he hasn’t lost it already.

The bulk of the credit for making 1408 work goes, of course, to John Cusack, who is essentially putting on a one-man performance. The other characters (Tony Shalhoub, Mary McCormick, and Jasmine Jessica Anthony) round the story out very well, and Mr. L. Jackson is a dynamite mood-setter in the first half-hour (when Sam Jackson is afraid of something, so should be you). It really is the Mike Enslin show, though, so it was indescribably important that the filmmakers found a lead as eminently watchable as Cusack is. I’m honestly hard pressed to think of any other actor that could have made this movie — he manages to play Mike in all his jaded, sarcastic, sad-sack glory and still fully engages you for nearly one hundred and fifty minutes. His range is really on display, and there are plenty of moments that could have fallen dead on arrival but instead get totally sold in his reactions.

Naturally, the set of 1408 needs to be just as dynamic as our hero, and that, too, is handled with a great deal of class. The room manages to be a brilliant kind of boring that appears totally unremarkable and you no doubt recognize from a hundred different vacation slumberholes, yet somehow becomes infinitely filmable whenever the movie needs it to be. There are lots of doors, windows, oddball angles; things that give the set a lot of versatility even when it isn’t falling down around us or bursting into flames.

King has been quoted several times about the three audience reactions that authors of his genre hope their work will inspire — terror, a head reaction; horror, a physical reaction; and the gross-out, a gut reaction. What makes 1408 such a success is that it understands all three and knows how to use them in the right doses. It will never just let the cat scramble out of the corner and crash some cymbals on the soundtrack, or sink into grimy torture-porn repulsions. 1408 will reach beyond that. You won’t be just scared or sickened; you’ll be unnerved. With very little flourish, it knows how to show you that something unnatural is in 1408 – and whether it is Creep A or Jump B or Shock C, it will get to you and it won’t let go easily.

In short, 1408 really manages to hit all the right notes. It’s scary, it’s funny, and it’s clever in getting inside both Mike Enslin’s head and your own. It’s rare that I recommend a film without reservations, but this is one that I don’t have to follow up with a “however…” or an “only if…” 1408 is unquestionably the best SK adaptation in recent memory and one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in years. There is no good reason you shouldn’t be watching this movie tonight.

Shalen’s rating: Ten. This is ten.

Shalen’s review: I’m not normally much of a King fan (see my review of Desperation). Seeing this movie makes me think I might not have given him a fair shake — as everyone, including Al in the review above, points out, adaptations of his books have for the most part been awful. 1408 is actually based on a short story. Maybe that’s the trick. Or maybe it’s John Cusack, whom I almost never get tired of watching no matter what kind of film he’s in.* There aren’t a lot of actors I can say that about. Or maybe it’s just that this film is so very claustrophobic, an element present in one of my other favorite horror flicks (Cube). Either way, it’s been a very long time since I saw a horror flick that could actually keep me awake at night.

It’s not just that it’s a well-executed one-man show. It’s that it’s a one man show in a box. That’s not the whole film by any means, since it takes the heavy-eyed writer protagonist** around half an hour of screen time to get to the titular room, but it helps. I haven’t been able to sit all the way through The Shining yet, but one often hears about the level of personality taken on by the Overlook Hotel in that movie. The same is definitely true about room 1408, the “evil f—ing room” where people keep committing suicide, going crazy, or horribly mutilating themselves. Each painting on the wall, each piece of furniture or appliance, has its part to play in the inhabitant’s own private hell.

I think that’s one of the biggest things that makes this film so frightening and fascinating. Hell is personal. It’s everyone you’ve ever loved turning on you, turning away from you, dying in front of you. It’s the horror of your own mortality and the certainty that death is no escape. It’s the past that you’ll never put behind you because it confronts you at every turn. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is the inside of your own head, where other people are only broken records playing in your memory, and even when they’re in front of you they will never be able to reach.

Even with all of that, I was surprised at the Chicken Soup for the Horror Lover’s Soul message of the movie. Again, maybe that’s just a King thing with which I’m not sufficiently familiar. But when we get to the end of the film and the protagonist says, “Sometimes you can’t get rid of bad memories. You just have to live with them,” it has the ring of conviction. This isn’t really a movie about inhuman torture; it’s about the very human need to cope. On some level we are our private horrors, and to deny them is to deny who we are.

It may not be inspirational exactly, but I find that a lot more truthful and authentic than anything in the Saw franchise.

*But probably not, because I still didn’t like Identity.
**Lest we forget who wrote the short story. There’s also a dead kid. Nobody has psychic powers, though.

Didja notice?

  • Does John Cusack end up in the rain a lot or what?
  • The crying baby in the lobby and the hotel hallway
  • Can we just go ahead and consider this film further proof that when Samuel L Jackson tells you not to do something, you LISTEN TO HIM.
  • The key’s POV shot? Neat.
  • Mike surfing through the On-Demand movies on TV? *tsk* Mind out of the gutter, man!
  • ‘Holy Bible’ is written upside-down and backwards on the book jacket when Mike puts it back on the table
  • Karen Carpenter is in league with the forces of darkness! I knew it!
  • Is this film an example of why you should bring a black light to a hotel room or why you shouldn’t?
  • For every other high-budget freaky bit in the movie, that melting phone gets me every time. Creepy.

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