The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, January 31, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - 1408

Originally published 8/12/07
Full review behind the jump


: Mikael Håfström
: Screenplay by Matt Greenberg and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewksi, based on the short story by Stephen King
: Lorenzo di Bonaventura
: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Jasmine Jessica Anthony

I admit to being partial to a good ghost story, because they are technology-proof. These days anyone can punch up something weird in a computer and have it murder some ingénue, or bring in the gore makeup crew for some hip dismemberment. But a good ghost story is the embodiment of some powerful emotional ideas. For one: death does not always end something’s influence on your life. Also: the most powerful kind of evil spirit is the kind that exploits our own weaknesses – our arrogance, our secret pains.

Stephen King has made a great deal of money from understanding the mechanisms of fear. One of my favorite passages in his writing comes from
The Shining, as he describes a little boy in a dark pipe, listening to something come rustling towards him through the dead leaves; something unknown, reaching for him with bad intentions. There’s a scene in 1408, based on a more recent short story of King’s, which uses many of the same elements as that creepy scenario. Fewer authors have seen a busier post-“retirement” period than King, save perhaps Isaac Asimov, for whom death itself was barely an impediment to his publishing pace. But King’s latter days have seen him frequently going over familiar ground; at least he’s stealing from his own best work. This movie version of 1408 is a tightly-mounted and highly-competent ghost story which plays like a remix of some of his older hits.

It’s anchored by a harder-than-it-seems performance from John Cusack. In spite of the special effects, the filmmakers are smart enough to realize that the real foundation of this movie is going to be the innate intelligence and sincerity he supplies. For long stretches it is essentially a one-man show, featuring a man as abused by a single room as anyone since Bruce Campbell went up to that cabin in
Evil Dead II. His success is the movie’s success, as well as the best argument for how reliable and experienced actors can serve genre movies; and why a good genre movie, like an old-fashioned ghost story, is something no one should be ashamed to enjoy.

He plays Mike Enslin – once a young writer of promise, now a traveling hack churning out cheesy “studies” of haunted houses across America. Why he has developed this spiteful relationship with the afterlife, and whether he indeed wants to find a real connection to the beyond, we will of course discover, because this is one of those movies where it matters that we know who we’re watching.

He receives a mysterious postcard from The Dolphin Hotel in New York, warning him about Room 1408. This is a room with a history that gets more ominous and gruesome the more Enslin reads about it. People go mad there; slit their own throats, gouge out their eyes, leap out windows. It’s said no one lasts more than an hour once they’ve checked in.

The hotel’s manager is Gerald Olin, played excellently by Samuel L. Jackson. He clearly understands that his job in this small role is to warm the crowd up for the big show, and he relishes that duty. Olin is a most capable hotel manager – diplomatic, personable, cultured, proud of his establishment. He even sees to it that Room 1408 gets cleaned, once in awhile, although there are strict rules (maids go in by twos, all doors stay open). He has given up trying to understand the room, he just works to keep it empty. But he sees in Enslin a man for whom every dissuasion just deepens his cocksure resolve.

He doesn’t believe the room is really evil. And we didn’t buy a ticket to watch him get talked out of it.

The room itself has the cookie-cutter bland livability one expects from a hotel suite – Mike makes snide comments into his pocket tape recorder about the paintings. Things start slowly – misbehaving plumbing, a clock radio that keeps switching on, a bed that seems to turn itself down. They don’t stay so subtle long.

What’s refreshing about 1408 is the way you can gradually discern that as malicious as this room is in imprisoning and tormenting Mike (I like the Sartre-esque “You Are Here” fire exit diagram, that shows the room surrounded by nothingness), it does obey certain rules. With spooks like those in the Grudge franchise, which have seemingly limitless abilities to assault their victims, one wonders why they bother creeping them out first. It’s childish. But this room, we think, cannot just murder you any time it feels like. Instead what makes it scary is that it openly intends to drive you to madness and death, and it’s very good at what it does, and it knows everything about you.

The screenplay is brisk enough to keep delivering scares while changing up their type regularly. 1408, that evil room, knows that the way to dismantle your sanity is not to just keep leaping at you, but to zig-zag. Play on the senses, then the nerves, then the memories. Tease with false hope, encourage despair, make you feel small and powerless. In this way, that Stephen King has done so effectively throughout his career, we recognize the universal gestures of abuse and project them against our own imaginations. The ghosts seem real, because the things they exploit in their abuse of us are so very, very real. A good ghost story, which this movie is, makes us both ponder our flaws, and jump in our chairs. I like that in my horror.


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