Friday, October 10, 2014

1408

Has a skeptic of the paranormal ever not been convinced by the end of a movie of how wrong they are? Seriously, when a character at the beginning of a film declares the supernatural is not real and there's no such thing as ghosts, isn't he or she asking for it?

1408 (2007), based on a short by Stephen King, gives us such a story. John Cusack stars as Mike Enslin, a writer whose books are about haunted houses and other ghostly incidents, but he himself is a skeptic. When he receives an anonymous post card telling him not to stay in a certain room at a New York City hotel, well, he just can't resist. Over the offers, objections, and warnings of the ominous hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson), he rents the infamous room 1408, prepared for another hoax. But as the creepy occurrences pile up, crossing the line from spooky to dangerous, Mike is unable to rationalize what he's experiencing.

1408 finds King back in familiar territory. The story has many similarities to The Shining: a troubled writer as the protagonist, a haunted hotel for the setting, and ghosts that try to drive our main character crazy. But 1408 is not merely a rehash of an earlier work. While The Shining could be viewed as King's exploration of the demons of alcoholism (or in Kubrick's case, the madness of writer's block), 1408 is about a grieving, emotionally closed off father.

Mike, we learn, lost his daughter before the events of the movie, and her death caused strain in his marriage, to the point where he and his wife Lily (Mary McCormack) are estranged. In fact, it's his daughter's death that led Mike to believe there is no such thing as the supernatural or spiritual; in a flashback brought on by the room, Mike relives the moment of his daughter's death and sees himself ask the question no doubt asked by many grieving parents: how could a just and loving god let this terrible thing happen?

That's the underlying strength of the horror in the room. The room, which Samuel L. Jackson says is not haunted but "fucking evil," messes with Mike psychologically. Sure, there are a few jump-scare moments, but the room, for unexplained reasons, wants to drive Mike insane and mess with his mind. Not only does it send ghostly apparitions of its past victims and manipulate with physical items (window falling down on his hand, thermostat plunging to freezing temperatures, bathroom sink faucet scalding him with hot water, etc.), the room, as indicated above, forces with him to relieve those awful moments from his past. In the room's cruelest moment, it sends him the ghostly figure of his daughter, and as he holds her close and tells her they can be together again, she dies in his arms, taken from him a second time.

The room also taunts him by constantly reminding him he's trapped. It's expected in this kind of story that the phone won't work properly and the door won't open even when he pounds away, but the room also makes the objects he throws out the window vanish before they hit the ground. When Mike tries to climb along the ledge outside, the wide shot of the building shows no other windows he can climb to, and when he tries the vents in the ceiling, those passageways are a twisting confusing maze where the other rooms he looks down in show an event from his life and a ghoulish corpse chases him. The film also uses Hitchcock's famous "Vertigo" shot, zooming in as the camera pans back, to stretch the length of hallways and passages to make them look like they're growing into infinity.

Also this leads to what appears to be a cheap ending where Mike wakes up on the beach, and the events seem to have been all in his head, a nightmare induced because he almost drowned surfing. But then, he goes to the post office to mail a manuscript, and he recognizes the clerk as a hotel employee. Suddenly, the postal workers tear and knock down the walls to reveal to Mike he's still in the hotel room, and once again, 1408 has been messing with him. "I was out!" he screams.

That actually would have been a great point to end the story on because in all honesty, with the power this room shows, there's no way Mike should be able to get out of this thing. A room that manipulates reality, sends ghosts to attack the hero, and influences everything in it probably wouldn't lose to the molotov cocktail Mike creates, and even if it could, why would it stand by and wait for him to try it?The movie itself runs a little too long. We probably could have done without the first "haunted" room Mike visits or the room's attempts to lure Lilly there.

Still, I liked 1408. I liked the buildup to entering the room (Jackson does a great job informing just how bad the place is, so we're amped to see it), and I liked the progression from the little things (mints appearing on the pillow) to specters to all out rubber reality. Cusack is solid in what amounts to mostly a one-man show. 1408 has a simple setup, a simple location, and simple execution, and sometimes, that's all you need for an effective horror thriller.

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