Monday 21 January 2008

1408 (2007)

Monday 21 January 2008
Director: Mikael Håfström
Writers: Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (based on a short story by Stephen King)

Cast: John Cusack (Mike Enslin), Samuel L. Jackson (Gerald Olin), Mary McCormack (Lily Enslin), Jasmine Jessica Anthony (Katie Enslin) & Tony Shalhoub (Sam Farrell)

An author, who specializes in debunking paranormal activity, spends a frightening night in a haunted hotel room...

I'm a sucker for a good ghost story. Ghouls, phantoms, poltergeists, haunted houses, anything like that. I'm also a fan of Stephen King's work, although screen adaptations of his books are frustratingly inconsistent. After The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, there's evidence that King's short stories are a better bet at the box-office, as they give filmmakers room to manoeuvre.

1408 is a little-known Stephen King story, here translated by Swedish director Mikael Håfström (who made his Hollywood debut with Clive Owen flop Derailed.) The basic story remains the same; cynical author Mike Enslin (John Cusack), who has made his name writing books that debunk supposedly-haunted locations, decides to spend a night in New York's Dolphin Hotel. Room 1408 to be precise, although he's warned by manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) that said room is "unavailable", as it's been the scene (cause?) of 56 deaths.

A little spooked by Olin's grim-faced portents of doom and attempts to bribe him into not leaving (because no guest has ever lasted more than an hour in 1408), Enslin remains resolute... and is handed the keys...

What follows is 106 minutes of John Cusack being attacked by his room, turning the majority of the film into a one-man show. Things start slow and ominous, with suitable tension and the odd chill. For the first 20 minutes, it seems 1408 is going to be an effective little chiller. Sadly, the plot doesn't stay intimate and plausible for long, and 1408 quickly moves onto "hallucinations" of knife-wielding killers, dopplegangers, bloody walls, a corpse in an air vent, freezing temperatures and ghosts that resemble cinema projections.

While it's a little unfair to expect 1408 to sustain itself with minor creep-outs like unplugged radios that crackle to life, anyone expecting a Shining-style treatment of the "one room/one man" premise is going to be disappointed. The escalating threats to Enslin are mostly entertaining, but they soon lose any sense of reality, so the film becomes the cinematic equivalent of a ghost train with the lights on.

John Cusack is always a charismatic delight, and it's nice to see him return to the mainstream. His performance is what keeps you invested once the film turns unsubtle, with his reactions as genuine as movie lore will allow.

There's a subplot for Enslin's family -- estranged wife Lily (Mary McCormack) and young daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) – which isn't unbearable, but it's distracting and takes centre stage in a misguided Jacob's Ladder-style warping of reality.

There's really not much else to say. The premise is pulp juiciness, there's a sublime scene between Cusack and Jackson before the terror begins, and the haunted beginnings are nicely handled... but it all becomes too unbelievable and silly. Dumb moments and oversights also litter the film: electrical items supposedly don’t work in 1408, but Enslin's tape-recorder never fails and his laptop even gets wireless internet -- despite being frozen and burned!

Essentially, the decision to mix in some subplots and constantly escalate the scares just results in a situation the audience can't identity with. We've all been in spooky rooms, or creepy hotels, and heard related ghost stories, so 1408 is initially imbued with a tension because of those associations. But 1408 soon devolves into a stock collection of jumps-cares, overblown effects, a limp family subplot and a protracted ending that just irritates.

1408 will pass the time, and there are some fun moments (particularly in Act One), but it's a shame director Håfström doesn't pursue a Stanley Kubrick-style vibe, and instead goes for the jugular with excessive stunts, effects and twists.

Paramount Pictures
Budget: $25 million
106 minutes