1408 is the latest Stephen King story adapted to screen and is opening wide in theatres this week. It is a fairly standard horror plot where a rabid rationalist meets his match when he attempts to debunk the stories surrounding a haunted inn – in this instance an extraordinarily evil hotel room in Manhattan. John Cusack, in a bid for a new career path from dotty romantic comedies, plays Mike Enslin, a best selling writer who writes popular dredge discrediting the supernatural and paranormal. When Enslin finds out about the best kept secret of the Dolphin’s infamous room 1408 he resolves to stay the night and get the final chapter to his latest book. Samuel L. Jackson plays the hotel manager who tries in vain to stop Enslin’s hubric endeavour.
Originally Eli Roth, director of the corporeal horror revolution Cabin Fever and the Hostel franchise, was attached to the project. He was axed when he could not tone down his snuff-film-without-the-benefit-of-sex style enough for studio execs. In an about face the studio went with one time loser Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom, of Derailed infamy. The end result is a film that relies on psychological tension rather than gore to scare the audience. And although I prefer the relatively cerebral horror of The Shining to the grotesque fare of Saw, I can’t help feeling that the decision was made more to capture the largest audience possible with a PG-13 film rating than for the sake of emotional effect. Even by my squeamish standards the horror seemed too tame.
Even by my squeamish standards the horror seemed too tame.
The film takes pains to explain Enslin’s intractable scepticism by his anger at the death of his child, estrangement from his wife, and his subsequent departure from writing ‘literature’. Why do characters with tortured souls always need such tired and ridiculous expository? Actor Tony Shalhoub (best known for Monk) is given the unsavoury task of playing Enslin’s fast talking publisher in a scene that is downright embarrassing and less subtle than a silent movie title card. Questionable talent in the roles of Enslin’s wife and child exacerbate bad melodrama with affectation.
After a fairly good, albeit long, set-up to the stay in the Dolphin, Cusack is left on his own for the bulk of the second half of the film. There is a dictaphone that provides the necessary rationale for his continuous narration that is downright irritating and implausible. Soon the horror starts in earnest and the overacting in spades. The Carpenter’s song, We’ve Only Just Begun is the start of a Groundhog Day clock radio motif of reiteration and futility and an ironic anthem for the film. Walls bleed, and heat, freezing, and flood all imperil our hero—the hotel room seems indestructible. I won’t spoil the multiple endings but it is fair to say that they are unsatisfactory and produced audible groans from those sitting near me.
There are some redeeming moments, Jackson’s performance is superb, the score by Gabriel Yared (English Patient fame) is eerie and nuanced, and the cinematography is solid. A few shots in the film were unique to my knowledge and ought to excite those looking for an innovative rack focus shot.
Stephen King is no babe in the woods when it comes to celluloid, with over a hundred of his stories made into films in the last 30 years, and seven in preproduction, the quantity of work is astounding. However, after his most successful novels were made into blockbusters, starting with John Carpenter’s Carrie in 1977, his impressive batting average has become dismal in the last few years correlating with the steep decline of his writing quality. King admits to being a compulsive writer who publishes everything he pens and although I admire his work ethic (and it makes economic sense) it has relegated his best writing to becoming lost in a morass of forgettable pulp. It seems that his films too, a healthy half dozen solid films and one masterpiece, Kubrick’s The Shining, are likely to suffer from this artistic attrition of quality. Alas,1408 is likely not be remembered by either his detractors or fans.