1408 (United States, 2007)
If elements of 1408 seem a little familiar, it shouldn't be a surprise. Here's John Cusack, once again having lodging problems (see also Identity). Here's a supernatural debunker faced with something that refuses to be debunked (see also The Reaping). And here's a movie about a room-for-rent where people go in but don't come out (see also Vacancy). Yet, despite all of these recycled plot elements bobbing around, there's nothing stale about 1408, which is easily the best horror film of 2007. Too often, we see a movie with a great setup like this ruined by a subpar ending. However, 1408 deftly sidesteps that trap, delivering a conclusion that somehow manages not to disappoint while at the same time leaving things open-ended enough that viewer interpretation comes into play.
To say that movie adaptations of Stephen King stories have a checkered history is to understate the matter. The rule of thumb is that King's non-horror efforts have gotten much better treatment than his bread-and-butter fare. The rule doesn't apply here, though. While 1408 isn't on the same plane as The Shawshank Redemption or Misery, it's easily among the best King-inspired motion pictures to-date. It is by turns bold, scary, and downright creepy. The film doesn't try to do too much and what appears to be a dead give-away of things to come turns out to be nothing more than a delicious piece of misdirection. I love that sort of thing. Instead of the viewer being a step ahead of the filmmakers, it's the other way around.
Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a professional skeptic. He makes his living by visiting supposed haunted houses and writing about the absence of ghosts. For him, room 1408 at New York's Dolphin Hotel is too good a challenge to pass up. In its nearly 100 years of existence, 56 people have died in that room. The hotel's manager (Samuel L. Jackson) calls it "fucking evil" and advises in the strongest terms that Mike not stay there. "No one," he advises, "has lasted more than an hour." At first, Mike is nonplused by the ordinariness of the accommodations. Then strange things begin happening, and by the time he decides that checking out early might be the wisest decision, that option no longer exists.
For the most part, this is John Cusack's movie to carry, and he has no problem taking it where it needs to go. His "co-stars," Jackson and Mary McCormack (as Mike's estranged wife, Lily), have minimal screen time. Most of the movie focuses on Cusack, alone in his room, trapped in an escalating environment of paranoia. Cusack uses his sunny, good natured disposition to get the audience to like him and, once that's accomplished, the film has us. Director Mikael Håfström is as adept at setting up "boo!" moments as he is at building and sustaining suspense. From the moment Mike enters the room, there's a growing sense of dread, but this is punctuated by instances of stark, sudden terror. This is Håfström's second English language motion picture, and it's a considerable step up from his previous effort, the unsatisfactory Clive Owen/Jennifer Aniston thriller, Derailed.
1408 is divided into three clearly delineated acts. The first, which lasts about 30 minutes, is the setup. We meet Mike on the outside, get to know him a little, then follow his single-minded determination to remove all obstacles and get his story. The second act takes place with Mike alone in the room. This is the most eerie, unsettling portion of the movie and will forever change your opinion of a sentimental Carpenters' wedding classic. The third act is the shortest, but offers enough twists and switchbacks to turn what initially seems to be a conventional denouement into anything but that. You can see it coming… or can you? While the final scene won't frustrate anyone the way the ending of The Sopranos did, it's not clear-cut, either. There's room for interpretation, which is a rarity in any horror film.
1408 doesn't belong grouped with the likes of Hostel and Saw, because the filmmakers understand that fear gestates in the mind. Gore can as often diminish terror as enhance it. 1408 can be rated PG-13 and still frighten the crap out of viewers because of the way the director balances claustrophobia with suspense. Yet things never become too intense, which can be a danger with a movie like this. That's where John Cusack shines through. Even in the midst of a personal apocalypse, he can utter a one-liner to break the tension.
The PG-13 rating might argue that 1408 is for teenagers, but that's a mistake. This is the most mature horror movie of the year - far more adult and sophisticated than the tedious Hostel Part II. If you like to be creeped out by movies, this is one to see. It reminds us what it's like to be scared in a theater rather than overwhelmed by buckets of blood and gore.
1408 (United States, 2007)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Matt Greenberg and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, based on a short story by Stephen King
Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme
Music: Gabriel Yared