[Warning: The following review may contain spoilers.]
The last big screen adaptation of a work by the prolific Stephen King was 2003’s Johnny Depp/David Koepp bore Secret Window. To say that 1408 is a step up from that instantly forgettable and underwritten effort is a major understatement. With Secret Window Koepp struggled to go beyond King’s excellent novella and instead of making an entertaining brain-teaser he made a film a main character that the audience never really cares about. Director Mikael Hafstrom, surprisingly does exactly the opposite with 1408, as he does not try to lose the audience by jumping right into the misbegotten character’s story, instead intelligently choosing to provide a back story that is both informative and entertaining, and was that humor or were my ears lying to me? But Hafstrom is known for building-up characters before they meet their fates. In both of his previous two films – Derailed and Evil – he creates valid characters that the audience cares about. But in this effort, instead of disbanding our invested emotions in the second and third act, we start to care about them even more. It is rare when we care about a movie character right up ’til the end, but with John Cusack’s Mike Enslin, we truly do.
Parallels between this film and another recent Cusack film Identity can definitely be drawn and not only because both films are thrillers that have the same actor play the main role, but also because of their story structure. In both films a ‘twist ending’ of sorts exists, and in both, it is a psychological one rather than the old double-cross twist endings that have become so cliched, they are rarely used anymore. But unlike Identity this film only involves one character getting stuck in a creepy hotel room, and while that lets the screenwriters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski not worry about things like multi-threaded character interactions with emotive outcomes, it does let them indulge into their sole (basically) character’s psyche and Mike Enslin turns out to be a much deeper character than any of the ones in Identity.
While like most recent Stephen King adaptations this film falls squarely in the thriller genre, it differs because the characters don’t resort to ridiculous dialogue and actions that may compromise their believability, and that is what King is really about. One of the reasons I enjoy King’s books so much is the crisp dialogue that flows right off the page, but neither David Koepp (unsurprisingly) nor Lawrence Kasdan could mimic that in their respective films. One may be quick to blame the actors for that, but it is hard to pin it all on names like Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman. I insist on putting the blame for the positives and negatives of these films squarely on the filmmakers, and 1408 is a great confirmation of that. Hafstrom and Co. are responsible for what is on screen and the way it comes off, especially when the material is this good and the cast is on par.
Hafstrom takes full responsibility here. He frames this story of a paranormal investigator so conventionally it is almost a relief. In today’s horror films, telling stories out of order has been the way to go, but it is refreshing to see a filmmaker who is unafraid to show his creation the way it was meant to be shown, without hiding the cause-and-effect element of the story right up until the end like so many amateur filmmakers do these days. And I am sure King appreciates that, because 1408 while being a short story, combines previous thematic elements found in books like “The Shining” and even “Carrie”. 1408 tells the story of a troubled writer who has already authored two best-sellers on paranormal activity. The thing is that he has never actually encountered anything remotely paranormal in his life, and I bet he would love it if White Noise was based on a true story. Still, he hasn’t given up and he decides to check into the infamous room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel. He does this against everyone’s will as he hopes that finding nothing haunted in the room (as expected) would inspire him to write another great paranormal book. But it doesn’t all go as planned, because room 1408 is a portal to another world, one that is both unexpected and unlike anything Enslin ever imagined it would be.
As the character that holds the movie together, Chicagoan John Cusack does a great job. Cusack always shows some kind of emotion and he is never wooden. It is interesting how he reacts to all the CGI imagery on screen as his reactions range from disbelief to sheer fear and that is hard to pull off, but the emotional arc here is undeniable and realistic. As his wife Lily, Mary McCormack does well with the little that she’s been given, but unfortunately she is still an actress that can not get away from the description generic. As Enslin’s dead daughter, Jasmine Jessica Anthony does an ok job looking scary or endearing when the film calls for it, as does Tony Shalhoub in a small cameo role. As far as Samuel L. Jackson is concerned, the f-word is becoming such a cliche that when he yells it out near the beginning of the film, I heard a loud groan out of a few audience members. Jackson is above things like that (see Black Snake Moan in addition to many others), and he needs to stop this before he turns into a freak show that gets invited to do dirty mouth cameos in movies.
Technically the film achieves exactly what it needs to without going above and beyond the expected. The editing by Peter Boyle is fine although the cinematography by the hard to get Benoit Delhomme lets him down with novice ideas and empty movement that make The Messengers look like a stylish masterpiece. The score by Gabriel Yared is good, because it is not just background noise like most horror scores, even the ones by good composers like Steve Jablonsky. Yared invests in the emotion behind these characters and I like the idea of him scoring more horror films. The special effects here are over-the-top but that is appropriate for the story. At one point in the third act they are almost too much, but Hafstrom quickly pulls the reigns back and grounds the story simply by getting back to Enslin’s psyche.
Overall, 1408 is a winner. It is the best horror film of the year so far and one of the best examples of the thriller genre in a long while. The performances are great, especially by Cusack, and the film is genuinely scary. This film is definitely not for anyone who is afraid of sleeping a alone or is planning to sleep in a hotel room any time soon. Unless you like to be scared as many people do, then this film is definitely for you. Lets hope that the next Stephen King adaptation, Frank Darabont’s The Mist lives up to the expectations set by Hafstrom.