June 26, 2007 -- Horror films in recent years have become bloodier, more graphic and more focused on torture and mutilation. In short, they are designed to be less about scary suspense and more about torture, mutliation and murder by proxy, sort of like legal snuff films. This goes hand in hand with American society's fascination with reality TV shows where people eat bugs, do a variety of disgusting and demeaning things, suffer large and small injuries and are humiliated in a variety of cruel ways for the so-called entertainment of the audience. This is similar to the humiliation humor in a large number of low-brow comedies typified by the “Jackass” films, which are at least aptly named. Thank God that “1408” is an exception to that type of crap. It is a real, chilling suspense film that is well-written and well-acted.
John Cusack (“Identity”) stars as Mike Enslin, a writer who has gone from writing serious books to writing cheap, New Age books about haunted houses. His schtick is to spend the night in a haunted house while poking around with pseudo-scientific ghost-sniffing gadgets. A compilation of his findings from various haunted houses is worked into a series of books. It is a good hustle, since there are never any real ghosts to deal with, and there plenty of suckers who buy the books. Enslin is coasting along, refusing to deal with his shattered marriage and the death of his young daughter. One day, however, there comes a reckoning. He comes face to face with a real haunted room and has to deal with it, and with the darkest secrets in the depths of his own soul.
The room is 1408 in New York's Dolphin Hotel. Enslin hears about the room, does his research and uses legal trickery to force his way into a room that the hotel does not want to rent to him. The setup for this situation is excellent as the hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson of “Snakes on a Plane”) tries his best to dissuade Enslin from entering the room. Olin details the many deaths that have occurred in the room, even producing a scrapbook filled with grisley pictures. This kind of careful setup is very important in a horror film (an example is the elaborate set up of the monster shark in “Jaws” before the animal is ever seen). What the setup does is it establishes the legend of the haunted place, creating anticipation of the horrors to come. Enslin is adamant about staying overnight in the room, convinced there is no real danger.
At first, nothing much happens in the room. Gradually, strange things start to happen. Eventually, Enslin is pushed over the edge and begins to lose his mind. He is finally convinced that this room is pure evil. It comes down to a battle to survive. This is basically a one-man show, although there are a few other people in the film. Among them, Jackson has the biggest role. Cusack, an excellent actor, gives one of his best performances in this film. Jackson is also good. Cusack covers a wide range of emotions, and he is always right on target. He carries the weight of this movie on his back with ease. Director Mikael Håfström uses effective and restrained visual effects and flashbacks to show what is going on in Enslin's mind, creating a nightmare-like environment. The story is fairly predictable, but there is also a twist or two. Writers Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, do a great job adapting a Stephen King short story. This is one of the best of the many King adaptations. Of all the movie genres, horror is the worst, but this film elevates it to an art form. The film rates a B.
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