Make a reservation for this return to classic thrills and chills

1408

on June 22, 2007 by Mark Keizer
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A prayer to the gods of the multiplex: Let 1408 be the turning point at which audiences become tired of the fashionable cruelty of torture porn and rediscover old-school frights. Don't laugh—it might happen: Hostel: Part II was met with hostility at the box office, so it's possible that society dodged a bullet and the horror genre won't devolve into 90 minutes of teenagers being disemboweled with angle grinders and metal spatulas.

1408 , based on the Stephen King short story, traffics in tension and supernatural thrills more akin to Japanese horror. It also has a sympathetic lead, something rare for a King story featuring a writer in crisis. (Unless he's being mowed down at a tollbooth, there's nothing sympathetic about James Caan, who starred in 1990's Oscar-winning Misery , and Jack Nicholson's off-the-rails performance in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining landed at the farthest end of the empathy meter.) In John Cusack, Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom ( Evil ) has found someone we can root for.

Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a travel writer specializing in books about haunted locales. A freshly minted atheist, for reasons withheld until the proper moment, Enslin's latest work centers on hotels. Armed with an EMF meter and infrared camera, he spends nights at ghost-infested lodges and then, through the power of his cynicism and tragic past, debunks any claims of paranormal activity.

Mike is the kind of protagonist King occasionally favors: He scoffs at the idea of supernatural forces, yet his lack of belief will cost him dearly. Indeed, Mike is fairly tickled upon receiving a postcard imploring him not to stay in room 1408 of Manhattan's Dolphin Hotel. But he's impressed by the creative come-on, so he returns to New York, where his life once took a heartbreaking turn.

Upon his arrival, he's met by hotel manager Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), and, in a delicious scene, Olin tries everything to get Mike to change his mind, offering rare brandy and the motel's bookkeeping archives that chronicle the 56 horrific deaths that have occurred in the room. After the adamant author is reluctantly given the key to 1408, the leisurely set-up gives way to quick stabs of movement, extreme close-ups and increased dread. And, after five years of sadistic horror films that are all pitch and no wind-up, director Hafstrom's ability to turn one screw as far as it'll go is downright refreshing.

From here, the movie becomes a chamber piece, as Mike struggles to escape 1408, which reveals itself to be a manifestation of his troubled mind. Speaking into his portable tape recorder, he initially and proudly deems the strange happenings to be parlor tricks. But soon he's at a loss to explain the apparitions that jump from the window, the visions of deceased family members and, most horrifically, the recurrence of The Carpenter's 1970 musical Xanax “We've Only Just Begun” on the clock radio.

Unfortunately, Hafstrom can't maintain the suspense, mainly because he stops trying to. At around 60 minutes, the film's priorities shift from the matinee pulp of King adaptations like Cujo and Christine to special-effects displays that include the room freezing over, filling with water and burning down. Multiple endings include brakes-slamming revelations borne of genre necessity, not any particular dedication to the characters. It's simply too many tricks in a too small bag. There's a light dusting of religious implication that Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's script never fully embraces, which renders Mike's past a facile sympathy-grabber and motivator for the increasingly wild effects.

But what 1408 delivers, it delivers well. Although Cusack has never given a truly great performance, he's never a drop less than reliable and likeable. And in his one-man show, he proves that horror is not in the scares—it's in the stars: 1408 would have been much worse had it starred Jim Carrey, and The Number 23 would have been much better had it starred John Cusack.
Distributor: MGM
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson and Mary McCormack
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Screenwriters: Matt Greenberg and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Genre: Thriller
Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing sequences of violence and terror, frightening images and language
Running time: 94 min.
Release date: June 22, 2007
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