Synopsis: Based on a story by suspense master Stephen King, 1408 is a gripping “roller-coaster of a head trip” (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly) that will have you on the edge of your seat. John Cusack delivers “a tour de force performance” (Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter) as a skeptical writer investigating paranormal events. When he insists on staying in the reportedly haunted room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel against the grave warnings of the hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson), he discovers the room’s deadly secret – an evil so powerful, no one has ever survived an hour within its walls. In the tradition of King’s The Shining and Misery, 1408 is a “psychologically thrilling movie that leaves you gasping in the end” (Desiree Belmarez, Denver Post).
Well, colour me impressed. I don’t remember the last time that I saw a Stephen King-based production that I truly enjoyed. I’ve seen so many shabby TV movies and straight-to-video efforts that the sheen on King’s reputation had worn off. I know that it’s probably not his fault, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’d become disillusioned.
Hmmm… come to think of it, the last Stephen King-based film that I enjoyed was called ‘The Mist’. I rather liked that one, actually. And it beat the snot out of ‘Desperation’, ‘Riding the Bullet’ and even ‘Rose Red’, Stephen King’s “ultimate” ghost/paranormal story.
Well, enough rambling. ‘!408’ is also a paranormal story, and it reminded me a little bit of ‘The Shining’ in some respects: in it, our protagonist, played here by John Cusack, is a failed fiction writer who now focuses all his energies on writing compendiums about purported haunted houses. He investigates them and reports on them in his books – which are still being published but that only find a limited readership.
He has become a bit jaded and cynical over the years: every time he goes into “haunted” spaces he discovers that there’s actually nothing to it; he is a firm disbeliever, even if he does find some redeeming value in the venues he visits. So, when he is given a new lead by an anonymous source (via postcard), he happily flies across the country to go visit room ‘1408’ in New York City’s Dolphin Hotel.
Obviously, not everything goes smoothly.
For starters, he is confronted by the hotel manager (played here with tremendous aplomb by Samuel Jackson), who tries everything within reason to dissuade Cusack from entering the room – let alone spending the night in it. It is revealed then that 56 deaths have been reported in that room since the hotel was first opened – not all of which were from natural causes. Still, the number is rather high and Jackson makes the claim that the room is not possessed, but is simply ‘evil’.
Jackson delivers what is, for me, one of my favourite performances of all the films I’ve seen this year. While he has but a small role in the film, his presence is felt throughout and I couldn’t help but wish that he would return onscreen. Meanwhile, John Cusack plays John Cusack as best as he knows how. I have always liked his style and (most of) his films, but I must admit that I would like to see something new from him in the near future – he’s far too talented to limit himself in his characterizations.
From this point onward, Cusack goes into the room and things go crazy. As in karaaaaaazay.
I won’t go into details because it would simply take away the point of watching the film, but it becomes pretty much a one-man play for the next hour or so. Sure, there are other actors involved in minor ways, but it’s mostly about Cusack and that room. I can totally see the allure of this for any actor – especially if he/she can pull it off. Cusack manages admirably well – hardly surprising.
The overall mood was rather enjoyable, with a surreal, creepy quality that was wholly palpable throughout. The filmmakers basically played with tone for 70% of the film and it worked to great effect. There were a few jarring scares along the way that could have been avoided, but I guess they were also trying to cater to the average cinema-goer. In that respect, I thought that it was maybe a little too intense at times. For a PG-13 film, I mean 😉
There’s one thing that I would have loved to see happen differently, however (beware of minor spoiler!):
Cusack is repeatedly startled by the room’s alarm clock, which suddenly bursts out loudly for no apparent reason. But then, at one point, it starts counting down from 60 mins – even after being unplugged. He had been told that no one had ever lasted more than an hour in that room before, so this occurrence was a little ominous.
What I would have liked to see is for the film to develop in “real” time from that point onward. I believe that the knowledge that no one had ever lasted an hour, along with the time ticking away like a time bomb would have had the audience on the edge of its seat for the remainder of the film. Especially if Cusack’s character endures all the trials and gets closer and closer and closer and closer to that devilish deadline.
It would have created a real sense of tension, an incredible build-up – all rooted in nothing more than the viewers’ expectations. Psychology over thrills: the mark of the best horror films.
Still, despite this slight disappointment, I was very pleased with ‘1408’. I loved the concept, it had a lot of little clever bits, it had solid performances, decent direction, and it was full of unsettling moments and scares. While I’m incredulous about the PG-13 rating, I’d recommend it to anyone who likes a good haunted house story and/or a good fright.