Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Tony Shalhoub, Jasmine Jessica Anthony, Christopher Carey, Paul Birchard, Walter Lewis, Eric Meyers, Holly Hayes, Alexander Silber and Johann Urb.
Screenplay by Matt Greenburg and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski.
Directed by Mikael Håfström.
Distributed by Dimension Films. 94 minutes. Rated PG-13.
There is a certain irony (slight, I’ll grant you…) to the fact that I am writing a review of 1408 while in a strange hotel room at night. After all, as John Cusack’s character says, there is something disquieting about all hotel rooms. You never know who has lived there, who has loved there, who has died there, what joy was shared or what pain was endured.
Not that I am suggesting that Room 1204 at the Radisson by the Los Angeles airport is haunted – or disturbing in any way like Room 1408 in the fictional Dolphin Hotel in Midtown Manhattan where Cusack is slowly driven towards madness. I have seen no signs of the supernatural at work here (except for the mysterious force which stole my complimentary copy of USA Today on six of the eight mornings I have awoken here.). However, I can relate to the the fact that when you are in a strange place, far from all that you know, the sounds are magnified, the atmosphere unusual, the spaces hard to negotiate in the dark.
1408 is based on a short story by horror maestro Stephen King. Like any film based on King’s writing, it has some great parts and some stuff that simply doesn’t work. However, 1408 turns out to be one of the better film adaptations of King’s work – perhaps because it is based on a short story, which gives the screenwriters room to reach out in different directions and allow the less-dense story breathing room.
King’s fiction does have a tendency to cannibalize his other work, so it is no great shock that 1408 feels extremely similar to certain scenes from his classic haunted hotel novel The Shining – which has been filmed twice itself (as a classic 1980 film with Jack Nicholson and an underrated, more-faithful-to-the-novel miniseries with Steven Weber). However there is enough story and interesting chills here, as well as a bravura performance by John Cusack, which allows this film to stand on its own.
Cusack plays Mike Enslin – one of King’s specialty tortured writers who gets drawn into the supernatural. When he started, Enslin was a serious literary novelist, but due to the muted response to his debut novel and some vague personal tragedies, he has become a hack writer who specializes in travelogues of haunted hotels. (We are let in on little pieces of the family strife early on, like the fact that he and his wife are separated and there is a vague hint of the injury or death of a small child, but we don’t learn any of the specifics until late in the story.).
This is somewhat ironic because in many ways Enslin is dead himself. He is totally withdrawn from the rest of the world, his publisher (Tony Shalhoub) has to treat him with kid gloves, he completely avoids his ex (Mary McCormack.) He is so disaffected that he doesn’t even believe in the ghost stories with which he makes a living. He just drinks and tries not to smoke and travels through his Venice Beach neighborhood like the walking wounded.
Everything changes when he receives an anonymous post card warning about room 1408 in the Dolphin. The hotel management, which is familiar with the history, refuses to let anyone rent the room. Enslin has to sue them to be allowed to stay in the room. Finally the hotel relents, but not before the manager (Samuel L. Jackson) tries one last time to talk the writer out of living in the room, explaining everyone who has stayed there has died within an hour.
Enslin doesn’t believe it, assuming this is all some theater the hotel uses to foster a reputation. He locks himself into the room, and at first there are no problems. Then, slowly, surely, little mysterious things start happening. Then they get bigger. Enslin’s jadedness is thrown and he tries to get out of the room, but it will not let him leave.
Unfortunately, another one of Stephen King’s little quirks is that his stories almost always have amazing set-ups but then get painted into a corner and stuck with unsatisfying endings. While I will not go quite that far with this film, in the last half hour or so the story does get away from the filmmakers and becomes too complicated by a half. Despite a clever screenplay by some interesting writing choices (co-screenwriters Alexander and Karaszewski are best known for their 90s brilliant trilogy of quirky biographical films, Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon) the ending has too many time-changes, too much metaphysics and too many special effects. (Why don’t makers of ghost stories ever realize that they work best with subtle thrills?)
Still, even if 1408 goes off the rails at the end it is a fascinating and chilling psychological study for the great majority of its running time.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 26, 2007.