Stephen King may be the undisputed leader in the world of horror fiction. Even the best masters of horror cinema like Wes Craven and John Carpenter can’t claim to be remotely as iconic or consistently excellent as the best selling author is within the genre. Few authors have had as many feature films made about their work than King, nearly fifty feature length theatrical and made-for-tv movies have been made from his work. The adaptations of King’s work that Hollywood has been putting out are inconsistent to say the least: for every The Shining, The Green Mile, and or Misery there’s a bomb like Thinner, Maximum Overdrive, or The Mangler, and for every one of those there’s a middle of the road moderate success like Secret Window, Hearts in Atlantis, and Apt Pupil.
Hollywood loves adapting King’s work so much that they’ve pretty much run out of novels to adapt. The new trend in making King works into movies is to adapt his short novellas and short stories into feature length movies. Interestingly these story adaptations generally haven’t been any more or less consistently successful than the adaptations of the novels. It’s interesting how different an adaptation of a short story can be than of a novel, rather than cutting down a story one must build up and expand upon the initial framework provided by the written work. Such movies are less reliant on King’s talent and more reliant of the talent of the screenwriter with the unenviable task of out King-ing King. The new Stephen King adaptation 1408 was made by film-makers who were up to that challenge.
The film revolves Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a writer of psudo-non-ficion books about the nights he spends in places that are supposedly haunted. Unbeknownst to his readers the nights Enslin spends in these locations are quite uneventful. Enslin is in fact a closet-skeptic, he advises one enthusiastic fan that his best place in America to spot a ghost is in the Haunted Mansion in Orlando, Florida. Enslin, an alcoholic writer who recently lost a daughter to an unspecified disease, is currently working on a book about haunted hotel rooms when he hears about the perfect haunted place to put in the last chapter of his book: Room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in New York where 56 people had supposedly been killed by an evil force that resides in the room. Upon his arrival at the Dolphin, Enslin is greeted by the hotel’s manager Mr. Orlin (Samuel L. Jackson) who begs Enslin not to go into the room because “no one has lasted more than an hour in 1408.” Despite Mr. Orlin’s warnings, Enslin refuses to be turned away. Orlin finally gives in and lets Enslin into the room, but it becomes readily apparent that there really is something very wrong with room 1408.
1408 was directed by Mikael Håfström, an unproven Swedish director whose English language debut, Derailed, opened to mostly negative reviews. Håfström proves here that, when given better material, he does have a promising career. But it is with the actors, or rather actor that the real credit is due. Once Enslin is in the room the film basicly turns into a one man show with John Cusack holding the only major speaking role. As such, much of the movie lives or dies by the quality of Cusacks acting. Cusack meets this challenge with a tour-de-force performance that single-handedly makes the movie worth seeing. Samuel L. Jackson is also very fun in his brief, but memorable, role.
King’s short story was one of the best in his collection Everything’s Eventual. The story was largely a tribute to the early twentieth century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The Enslin in the book resembled the one here, but this version of the character has been expanded. The writing team cleverly expands Enslin to be more like a typical King character, he’s an alcoholic writer who’s lost a child. Enslin is a much better developed character than the victims to be in most horror movies. One really begins to feel they know him well by the end of the movie.
The film isn’t the scariest or most tense thing you’ll ever see, but it does have a number of good jump scenes. Many of the tricks the room uses to torture Enslin are really interesting, most memorably a McCabe twist on Harpo Marx’s mirror sketch. The real terror here is psychological, one really gets into Enslin’s head and feels for him during the maddening emotional rape the room is trying to drive him to suicide with. Also chilling is the history of the room which Orlin describes to Enslin while trying to persuade him not to stay in the room.
The movie is not perfect. The order in which Enslin tries to escape is a bit loopy, Enslin tries to escape through the vents only after he tries climbing out the window to the next room. There’s also twist toward the end that is interesting but ultimately unnecessary. This twist breaks the claustrophobic atmosphere, and it takes the movie a while to recover, which it does just in time before the emotional climax. The ending was also a little bit too easy.
1408 may not be “extreme” enough for the new generation of horror fans. But it is sometimes refreshing in this era of torture porn to see just how effective rattling chains in a haunted house (or hotel room) can be.
***1/2 out of four