Locus Online
Features Indexes
Monday 25 June 2007

Movie Review of 1408

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Mikael Håfström

Written by Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (based on a story by Stephen King)

Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Jasmine Jessica Anthony

Howard Waldrop: Ever been scared by a Carpenters song? You will be.

Lawrence Person: Of all the haunted hotel movies based on a Stephen King story, this is easily the second best (or first, depending on your opinion of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.) As a haunted whatever movie, this is a pretty good example of the form, and is very effective at building up the creepy atmospherics, but eventually falls prey to both the inherent problems of the form, and of an overriding lack of conceptual coherence.

HW: This is Cusack's movie. He's in pretty much every goddamn scene. It's from his limited 3d person POV; the camera's near his head all the time, and we see what he sees, while it's happening. There are two-shots with Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack (wife), Jasmine Jessica Anthony (daughter) and some bit players: otherwise, it's Cusack, up close and personal.

Both: His character is a cynical non-fiction ghost book writer (there's a real scene of a real book-signing, where four people show up) who spends nights in "haunted" rooms, writing about it despite never having had a single paranormal experience. Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel in NYC is the next stop on his list.

But before that, he has a surfing accident in Hermosa Beach, CA (where he lives) — there's real surfing here, people missing waves, wiping out on 2-foot swells etc. You know — just like in real life. (This is where you start thinking about ol' Ambrose Bierce, about which more anon.)

In his past is a marriage, with a dead daughter and a lost wife. During the course of the movie, all this comes back to, truly, haunt him.

LP: The setup is very good, and continues to get better. Samuel L. Jackson, finally sinking his teeth into a role and script that aren't criminally stupid, is wonderful as the Dolphin's manager, pleading with Cusack not to stay in the room. It's an intelligent, well-written and dignified role and Jackson plays it to perfection.

When Cusack first gets into the room, he starts out maintaining his cynical calm while director Mikael Håfström manages to ably build tension from the smallest of disturbances; never have hotel mints on a pillow (or that Carpenters song) been so frightening.

All in all, this movie has a swell first half. Unfortunately, there's a second half...

HW: As in a Philip K. Dick novel, only the toothpick is what it seems.

About 3/4 the way through, you ask yourself "Is this 'An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge' all over again?" The movie dances like a butterfly and stings like a bee all around that swell old saw, but never lights on it squarely.

There's stuff wrong with this. It's too long by about 20 minutes. Samuel L. Jackson's role is inconsistent; is he part of it, or, as he says to Cusack, trying to dissuade him from staying, "I don't want to clean up another mess." The special effects (and sound editing) cut loose in the last half; they've been (fairly) subtle up until then. The hotel must have a 12-million BTU central-air system, as it drops the room temperature below 0ļ F at one point. (Or does it? Sure looked cold to me and Cusack.)

LP: At some point in a haunting movie, the movie (or rather the writer, director, etc.) has to decide what the haunting is about, and what kind of movie it's going to be. The problem isn't that 1408 doesn't do this, the problem is that it does it four or five times, and each time comes up with a different answer. It starts out a haunted room, then a malevolent room, then it's (speaking of Dick) The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (with the hotel in the title role and no Chew-Z in sight), and then it's the external manifestation of characters inner unresolved grief trauma, and then it's the Black Mass Inversion of Groundhog Day, and then it's a sentient force capable of reaching outside the hotel room, and then, well, you get the idea. And itís not one after another, it's all mixed together with little rhyme or reason. It's ghosts, and then a white room psychodrama with his presumably dead father, and then the walls are bleeding. And then itís off again to the next scare. Eventually it just seems like the writers were just trying to toss as many creepy ideas up on the screen as were humanly possible just to see which ones would stick.

There are some serious pace and sequencing problems of the boo scare shocks. Once Cusack gets to the room, it starts to get a little creepy, then a little creepier, then a little creepier, then INSANE WOMAN WITH A PICKAXE BEHIND YOU, then a little creepier again, then...well, you get the idea.

Jackson says "It's just a fucking evil room," but there seems to be no limits to its power, intelligence or reach. At one point it spoofs Cusack's webcam to trick his Ex into coming to the room. To the best of my knowledge, never before has a malevolent architectural feature been able to so seemlessly hack a TCP/IP stack. (Then again, it was a Dell running Windows, so it probably wasn't that hard...)

Where everything is possible, nothing is interesting, and despite fine direction and acting, and some creepy individual scenes, the movie's ultimately an incoherent mess, albeit an interesting one. (The most obvious point of comparison, for that and other reasons, is Jacob's Ladder.) Say what you will about Kubrick's The Shining (which has many missteps of its own), but it ultimately has a far more coherent metaphysical framework for the narrative (even if only implied) than 1408.

HW: I don't think the movie quite knew what it was trying to say: since I haven't read King's story, I don't know what that was. I know this movie touched on so much real stuff (unlike most horror movies) it made you think it did.

LP: Itís sad that mere technical competence is sufficient to really stand out from the current horror movie crowd, but it is and does. I actually enjoyed this movie more than The Shining, even though it's less coherent. Whether you should see it or not depends on your appetite for haunted house films and your tolerance for conceptual confusion. It's not even in the same league as Robert Wise's The Haunting, but with the possible exception of The Others, there hasn't been much in the haunted X movie genre worthy of interest in recent memory.

HW: This is the best film I've seen made from a Stephen King work since Stand By Me. Warts and all, that's something.

LP: Itís not in the same league as The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile (neither of which Howard has managed to catch yet). And it's not a great film. But if you have a hankering for a horror film, at least you won't be bored.

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.