Finally, a good old-fashioned scary movie.
I’m a horror fan. I admit it. I know, I know, it’s not exactly the most respectable of genres, but what can I say, I like to be scared. I am also a self-professed film geek. I went to film school, I’ve worked in various parts of the industry and yes, I am now a film critic. So, while I may enjoy horror movies, I can rarely recommend one.
The current state of horror has been slowly peeling away at my enjoyment of the genre. While I enjoyed the first Saw and Hostel movies for what they were, they really aren’t about scares. They are about shock and a masochistic taste for blood. And while I’ll admit to a certain level of bloodlust myself, somewhere around the body twisting machine sequence in Saw III, I felt I was just losing my taste for those movies. With endless imitators around every corner, from dreck like Turistas to endless inferior sequels, the core intent of the horror movie, to scare people, has been forgotten.
Enter 1408. Based on a Stephen King short story from 2004 first included as part of an audio book entitled “Blood and Smoke” and now part of King’s short story collection, “Everything’s Eventual,” it is horror in the more classical sense of the word.
John Cusack plays dime-store novelist Mike Enslin. Once a respectable writer, Enslin has retreated to the world of cheap top ten scare books after the death of his young daughter. He’s jaded and doesn’t actually believe in the supernatural, but it’s an easy way to make a quick buck. When he receives a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City warning him of their infamous haunted room 1408, he decides it’s worth checking out.
As it turns out, more than 50 people have met their end in that very room over the past half decade. Still not convinced, Enslin decides to check it out for a night. The hotel’s manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) pleads with him not to go through with it, even going so far as to offer up a file filled with the dirty details of each and every horrible occurrence that has taken place in room 1408. But Enslin is unimpressed. He’s heard these warnings before, and despite visiting locales across the globe claiming evidence of the paranormal, he’s never seen a single scrap of evidence for himself.
Of course, we the audience know that he’s wrong about room 1408. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie, right?
1408 is directed by Mikael Hafstrom, a talented Danish director who at first seems to have no business lowering himself to direct a standard Hollywood haunted house movie. But luckily for us, Hafstrom saw that there was potential in King’s tale, a chance to go for more than cheap scares, blood and guts. In fact, 1408 is actually rated PG-13.
And yes, to answer the burning question… IT IS SCARY!
And hey, it’s PG-13 so why not bring the kids along for a little psychological scarring?
What Hafstrom does so effectively for almost the entire first half of the movie is build tension. You know something is going to happen, but when? Enslin checks into the room and goes about his business. Nothing abnormal is happening, but we know better. It’s coming. There’s something behind the door? No. There’s someone lurking around the corner? No. When is it going to happen???
Sitting on the edge of my seat with goose bumps forming on both arms, 1408 had me. I’ve been here before and usually I’m eventually let down, but when the scares did start coming I found my eyes glued to the screen.
Cusack is the perfect choice for the lead role. He’s the likable everyman that audiences immediately identify with. Even as much as we wish he’d Olin’s warnings, we can’t wait to see where he will take us. Cusack blends the scares with the requisite amount of sarcastic wit. As things get creepier, Enslin tries his best to joke about utter ridiculousness of the situation. Right about up until the time a former tenant appears behind him from out of nowhere with a large knife.
For Cusack, it’s a role which could have been little more than a toss-off between meatier, more dramatic parts. Instead, 1408 offers a nice showcase of a different side of his acting abilities. Appearing in nearly every frame of the movie, the majority of 1408 is really a one-man show. Aside from the ghosts and ghouls, Cusack is left with only the room as a supporting actor and he pulls it all off quite impressively.
Admittedly, there comes a point around the beginning of the third act where 1408 doesn’t seem to know where to go. It manages to pull out of it and deliver a suitable ending, but it isn’t able to maintain the level of say, The Shining. But then, that’s a pretty high bar to set. 1408 is creepy and fun, a crowd pleaser that delivers on the idea of a “scary movie” far more effectively than any entry into the affectionately named “torture porn” genre ever could.
1408 isn’t the movie to reinvent the genre, but it’s a well told old-fashioned ghost tale. Audiences are going to enjoy it, girls will clutch the hands of their dates and, honestly, most 13-year-old kids whose unassuming parents think the idiotic MPAA has given them proper guidance is going to have to deal with a few sleepless nights afterwards.