“Let’s ‘Encyclopedia Brown’ this”
It seems that the best Stephen King films are culled from his short stories (Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me among them). However, those also tend to be the dramatic films with little supernatural scares. So, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the new film 1408. It is a short story, so it would hopefully be concise and to the point, but it was also a thriller/horror which never quite make the jump from book to screen successfully. What works in words at creating imagery in your head doesn’t pack the same punch when someone else shows you what it looks like to them. The film has been garnering good buzz though, and I’m a John Cusack apologist; the man can still be loved even in the drivel he associates with lately. So, the question becomes, was the film a successful thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout? My answer here is actually yes, but with numerous reservations. There was a lot to like with this movie, but unfortunately there was just as much to shake your head at.
The real winner in all of this is Cusack. He gives a fantastic performance while being the center of attention throughout the entire duration. He must get through many emotions as we slowly find out the motives that led him to being a cynical occult writer, estranged from his wife. His story is a tragic one and Cusack delivers on the repressed anger and sadness he has tried to keep buried inside. Once he enters room 1408, however, all those feelings are used against him and brought to the surface, creating the most horrific hour of his life. Horrific in the psychological sense; he deals with his own demons in the film, not ghoulies and monsters. The way in which director Mikael Håfström deals with these manifestations of Cusack’s soul is very effective.
As far as the progression of what was happening to him in that hotel room, I couldn’t have been more pleased. The set pieces were creative and the climate changes that transformed the room with every increase in the scale of terror were effective. Sure the jump scares were tried and true, (a crazed person with a knife that popped up every once in a while, the high tension of walking a building’s ledge— Cat’s Eye anyone?—and the dead man trapped in the ventilation system), but they were also paced right and less boring than just common. All the effects were good, the tv-like holograms of the dead walking around the room was handled well if also the norm in all horror films these days, and the room’s destruction seemed real rather than computer-generated. I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually destroyed the set rather than dressed it up to look that way.
Where the film really fails is in the supporting characters and the misstep that occurs towards the end. For a movie that works when it is just Cusack in a hotel room, we are given too many outsiders and too many scenes outside of the room. Not to ruin anything, but there is a moment when our lead exits the hotel towards the conclusion of the film. This ends up derailing any suspense that had been building for me. Not only does it kill the claustrophobia that was settling in, but it kills the pacing and makes you think they are going in a specific direction which I just keep saying to myself, “I really hope they don’t do what I think,” instead of watching to see how it plays out. The use of twists these days is so common that when utilized correctly or not, the audience finds themselves thinking about the structure of the trick rather than letting it happen to them.
As far as the supporting roles, I’m not saying they were poorly acted, they were poorly written and fleshed out. Besides Mary McCormack as Cusack’s estranged wife, all the roles were made to seem more important than they are. The real failure, to me, is the Gerald Olin role, played by Sam Jackson. What begins as a setup character, someone to give us the hotel’s history and create mood becomes something else completely by the end. If Jackson never came back onscreen after Cusack goes into the room, I would have been happy. He soon becomes our lead’s default person to blame for the crazy events happening, and that is ok. What isn’t is that as the film goes on, we start to see Jackson some more, almost like he is really orchestrating it all. The truth is though, that it makes no sense because all that is happening is inside Cusack’s head. It is the final scene with Jackson that put me over the top on hating his role. The moment takes place outside of the room and therefore is real, but it is so cryptic and unnecessary that it just makes you subvert all you were thinking for absolutely no payoff whatsoever.
So, overall, the mood and atmosphere were effective, Cusack was amazing throughout, and the way the psychological horrors play out, right to the end scene with his tape recorder, is spot-on. Unfortunately, the actual scares were generic and the writing of the supporting roles weak. While it is definitely not a total loss, I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in the theatres. A rental or tv-sitting is all that’s needed here.
1408 5/10 | ★ ★
 John Cusack (Mike Enslin) and Samuel L. Jackson (Mr. Olin) star in Mikael Håfström’s 1408. Photo by: David Appleby/The Weinstein Company, 2007.
 Jasmine Jessica Anthony (Gracie) and John Cusack (Mike Enslin) star in Mikael Håfström’s 1408. Photo by: Benoît Delhomme/Dimension Films, 2007.