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1408   C+

MGM / Dimension Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Mikael Håfström
Writers: Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski (based on the short story by Stephen King)
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Tony Shalhoub, Jasmine Jessica Anthony.

Review by Rob Vaux

The problem with a great setup is that it requires a proper follow-through. If you raise expectations to a certain point, you need to make sure you can meet them. Stephen King's greatest shortcoming as a writer is his periodic inability to do that. He can bait his hooks like nobody's business, spinning out an irresistible scenario involving protagonists as achingly plausible as any in all of literature. Then, somewhere between the second act and the final page, it all goes to pot. The premise is strong enough to pull you through, but you can't help but feel a little bit snookered by promises that are never entirely fulfilled.

I'm inclined to cite that as the reason for 1408's terminal difficulties. It certainly isn't the handsome production, yeoman director, or bankable stars. Nor is it the film's ambition, which opts for far more than simple horror-movie thrills and comes tantalizingly close to pulling it off. The first half hour prepares an exquisite table, and with the recent crop of ultraviolent horror films having apparently reached a saturation point, the subtler, more psychological atmosphere here comes as a pleasant surprise. Both director Mikael Håfström and star John Cusack tackle what is essentially a one-man show with admirable daring. And yet it doesn't entirely coalesce, its potential slowly petering out like the air escaping from a balloon.

1408 has further strikes against it because of its essentially recycled nature. The story takes a big cue from The Shining, presenting a haunted New York hotel room as a Mini-Me version of that earlier novel's Overlook resort. Håfström quietly indulges in a few of Stanley Kubrick's old tracking shots, while investing the atmosphere with a gloomier and more overt menace. The Dolphin Hotel -- location of the titular room whose occupants have a distressing habit of offing themselves -- sags with the sort of antiquated elegance that would make Miss Havisham feel right at home. The televisions and air conditioning are just a little too old, the corners just a little too shadow-laden for comfort. It's clichéd, yes, but Håfström invests it with an excellent sense of foreboding that carries the film past a fair number of rough spots.

The caretaker of this gothic realm is Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), polished hotel manager whose possibly supernatural origins remain agreeably mysterious. He's cleaned up his share of bodies in Room 1408, and he has no trouble shutting down anyone who presumes to spend the night there. The source of whatever malice dwelling within is equally opaque. "It's an evil fucking room," Olin declares, and that alone is supposed to be enough. Jackson's badass persona plays into the character particularly well -- if Jules the hit man is scared of 1408, then who are we to chance it? So, too, does Cusack parlay his cynical Gen-Xer identity into the ideal fly in the hotel's ointment. He plays Mike Enslin, a pulp writer who specializes in glorified tourist books extolling the virtues of supposedly haunted houses. He's seen hundreds of innkeepers playing up the scares of their colorful little spook stories, and thinks a night in 1408 would make the perfect capper to his new book. Olin's efforts to convince him otherwise -- including offering a detailed file on the room and allowing him to take photos of an alternate location with the same layout -- are little more than steak to a starving wolf. With both actors in an extremely comfortable zone, 1408 trundles out its scenario smoothly and efficiently, and by the time Olin reluctantly hands over the key, we're all set for an upscale trip into a very scary funhouse.

Sadly, the rest of 1408 never quite rises to the challenge. Once Enslin enters the room, it basically seals him in and subjects his psyche to a barrage of horrors in an attempt to induce a crazed, fearful suicide. Håfström bases the action loosely around Dante's Nine Circles of Hell -- seascape pictures simulate drowning, the malfunctioning thermostat turns the room into a plane of ice, etc. -- as former occupants parade ghoulishly across the edges of Enslin's vision. 1408 seeks to emulate the impeccable inner monologues of King's protagonists, which slowly strip away their skepticism and doubt until they have no choice but to accept the supernatural reality of the moment. In this case, the equation entails a ubiquitous dead daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony), and Enslin's use of his writing career as a frustrated attempt to prove that there is life after death. That melodrama mixes uneasily with the horror elements, served up as psychotropic flashbacks amid the protagonist's increasingly desperate efforts to escape the room. Håfström works hard to couch things in purely internal terms -- we're never certain if what we see is real or just a product of Enslin's possibly drugged perceptions -- but the proper sense of buildup eludes him, reducing the proceedings into a haphazard series of set pieces. Cusack proves game, but watching him shout at the walls becomes wearying after a time, and the odd attempts at humor never strike the right notes.

Amid that, a scattering of rewards helps perk up to proceedings. Håfström utilizes more than his share of clichés, but some work far better than they should (the old picture-that-changes-when-you're-not-looking routine has a good run here). And while the atmosphere borrows from a few too many of King's other chillers (besides The Shining, we get nods to Misery and the old short story "The Ledge"), it finds a certain distinctiveness that a less creative director could never achieve. Unfortunately, a few plot holes linger annoyingly, and the expected twist at the end lacks the Twilight Zone eeriness for which it was clearly intended -- further detracting from the film's modestly high-minded goals. It may have been inevitable. King's shortcomings struggle badly enough on the page, and become doubly difficult when attempting to translate it to screen. 1408 tries harder than most, and evokes the author's good points as well as his bad, but like its fast-talking hero, it was in trouble the minute the door closed behind it.

Review published 06.23.2007.

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