Saturday, June 23, 2007

1408

Mike Enslin encounters yet another exhibit in the museum of creep that is room 1408

The modern horror film has become an exercise in cruelty, where typically the viewer is expected to take some form of twisted joy in the torture and mutilation of innocent people at the hands of a sadistic killer. Not that there isn't a time and a place for this type of entertainment, but I am of the mind that such viewing is perhaps best had in small doses, as it can dull the mind's ability to experience the true terror that can be found in a movie like 1408.

A Stephen King short story of the same name, 1408 began life as 25 pages of that eerie, subtle form of creepiness that had the power to burrow surreptitiously under your skin and take up residence for awhile. Director Mikael Hafstrom's interpretation of this story works in much the same manner, developing what was a very effective, yet starkly told tale (in terms of plot and character development) into a well-rounded, chilling exercise in what could be more easily termed psychological suspense than horror. John Cusack plays Michael Enslin, a moderately successful author who makes a living off of traveling to supposedly haunted destinations and writing about the specters he sees, or more accurately doesn't see. Enslin is clearly a man who doesn't believe a word he writes. Initially compelled to find a shred of evidence for the existence of an afterlife after the death of his young daughter, Enslin has become cynical. His uneventful trips to remote country inns and the gravesites of serial killers have become exercises in receiving paychecks rather than visits from spirits.

When he receives a postcard in the mail depicting the historic Dolphin Hotel in New York City, with the admonition on the back, "Do not enter room 1408," Enslin sees the opportunity for a good finish to his latest novel about haunted hotels. Procuring a reservation for this room proves to be difficult, but Enslin is not prepared to back down. The Dolphin's manager, Mr. Olin (a small role played very effectively by Samuel L. Jackson), pleads with Michael to not stay in this room, detailing 1408's very bloody history (56 deaths have occurred throughout the hotel's long history) and the fact that no one has ever lasted more than an hour inside. Enslin is not swayed, brandishing the swagger and sarcasm of a man who has heard it all and who insists on being granted access due to some fuzzy civil rights law. Olin sees he's fighting a losing battle and hands over the key. An old-fashioned brass key. According to Olin, magnetic card locks do not work on 1408.

Once Enslin is ensconced inside the modestly-appointed suite, he settles down for what he assumes will be another night of emptying the mini-bar, making occasional quips on his voice recorder. What ensues, however, are escalating events that could only be described as the terrifying personal hell of a deeply wounded man. It isn't clear what exactly haunts 1408. Certainly, the room's victims make appearances, but the room has a hallucinatory effect on Enslin's mind, altering the room's spatial reality and giving the helpless viewers the impression that the man is slowly losing his mind.

From this point, 1408 operates more like a one-man show, hinging almost all of its credibility on John Cusack's performance, which is nothing short of stellar. We believe that he doesn't believe, and we believe when he finally begins to. We are convinced that this is a man whose grip on reality has been drastically altered in a very short span of time, and we sympathize with him when his real wounds are ripped open by the room's ghastly presence. Although there were a couple of points where director Hafstrom went a smidge over the top in his attempt to frighten the audience, and the false endings made the film feel a tad longer than its 125-minute length, he generally kept the reins in and didn't stray into the realm of the cheap and tasteless. The film is held together by solid acting and a genuinely creepy atmosphere, and it made me feel in no particular hurry to stay in a hotel room again anytime soon.

It is true that 1408 might not horrify the majority of its viewers, but I'm not so sure that was its aim. It is a cold visitor that wants to come and sit with you for a couple of hours, stroke your cheek, and leave you feeling relieved to step out into the sunlight again. This is a film that offers a lot of substance for those who have not been desensitized in this culture of gratuitously showcased bloodshed and entrails, who prefer their frights to be experienced on a more cerebral level, and who retain the ability to empathize with a painful loss. On that level, 1408 not only skillfully made, but it is surprisingly refreshing.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A-