2007Director: Mikael Håfström
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack
he film 1408 begins with the deliberate, foreboding atmosphere of an eerie ghost story, building and sustaining tension effectively before ultimately languishing in a monstrosity of special effects. That its disintegration occurs ever so gradually works to the film’s credit. When all is said and done, it proves somewhat baffling to see a film that at once can execute so many successfully creepy moments while simultaneously reveling in all of the most misguided attempts at invoking terror. I suppose as a whole it balances itself out, settling firmly into that comfortable mediocrity affixed to far too many summer blockbusters.
I’ve said it before, but it helps to reiterate that the manifestation of the supernatural in films such as this one never sits well with me. Earlier this year I lambasted The Messengers for failing to capture the creepiness of the subject. Now, nearly half a year later, I still haven’t changed my tune. 1408, like so many films before it, thrives far too heavily on special effects without consideration for tone, execution or whether or not they actually come across as remotely frightening. A good rule of thumb for any director has always been to show and not tell. The sad truth about films involving the supernatural, however, is that they work best when set in direct opposition to this dogma. The less we see of our ghostly adversaries, the better.
The most effective parts of the film occur just before Mike Enslin’s (John Cusack) arrival at the ominous room. Director Mikael Håfström works efficiently at mustering a feeling of menace surrounding the pernicious room 1408 simply by allowing characters to relate unsettling tales of the manner by which it claimed previous victims. Håfström’s methods here reveal what effectively destroys the whole second half of the film—that the power contained in tales of supernatural folklore lies in the nature of their telling and not in the visual interpretations of their ghostly apparitions. Jackson’s presence as the hotel manager is particular sharp, as his knack for narrating helps give each ghastly tale the perfect, chilling inflection. A tale about a maid who stabs her eyes out after being trapped in the room’s bathroom for a few minutes comes across as far more terrifying than anything that occurs thereafter.
Following the bone-chilling introduction to the room, the film falls into a disappointing grab bag of hit-or-miss moments, with the vast majority of those moments falling on the “miss” side. One scene, where Enslin confronts a vision of his decrepit father wasting away in a wheelchair and spouting vaguely ominous intimations works superbly at generating unease; another misses the mark entirely as Enslin converses with a miniature Samuel L. Jackson, whom he finds residing in his mini-bar (unless the scene was intended as a goofy tribute to Ghostbusters). This illustrates the major flaw lurking throughout the film, namely that, once confined in room 1408, any event containing the least semblance of terror is almost immediately countered by some appallingly ridiculous occurrence.
The Dolphin Hotel of the film will draw comparisons to the Overlook from The Shining, especially since both stories were penned by Stephen King. Make no mistake: the focus in 1408 rests squarely on Cusack’s character and not on its supposedly eerie setting. Good thing too, since Håfström’s camera doesn’t even come close to detailing the environment of his film as intensely as Kubrick did. Lucky for him, Cusack puts in a fairly strong performance for a film of this caliber, playing a jaded failed novelist who has resigned himself to writing books detailing haunted locations across the nation. Cusack settles into his role nicely throughout the film’s first half and does his best to save the film during those later moments when the special effects take over. He does so by not overplaying the part, but by letting the story dictate his expressions. In an early scene in which he makes a bookstore appearance to a less-than-enthusiastic crowd, his dejection and heartbreak comes across naturally without resorting to scenery-chewing.
Unfortunately, even the staunchest acting defense could not salvage this film from the overwrought themes of redemption that pervade much of King’s work. In a film that should be unrelenting in its gloominess, we spend far too much time sidestepping the darkness in favor of painfully maudlin moments. It is perhaps more than a bit telling that King’s original story was intended as an exercise to teach his readers the fundamentals of writing before he expanded it into a serious endeavor. Maybe he should have spent less time instructing and more time reflecting; he might have noted what a shabby story he had on his hands.
1408 is currently in wide release.