1408. 2007. Directed by Mikael Håfström. Screenplay by Scott Alexander, Matt Greenberg, & Larry Karaszewski; based on the short story of the same name by Stephen King.
Starring John Cusack, Tony Shalhoub, Samuel L. Jackson, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Benny Urquidez, Mary McCormack, & Jasmine Jessica Anthony.
Rated 14A. 104 minutes.
Director Mikael Håfström is a capable hand. His films Evil and Derailed are both decent, particularly the former. Putting him in charge of a Stephen King adaptation is a good choice, one which he proves is worthwhile decision. The screenplay for the film went through a couple stages, though it seems this was a benefit – first, Matt Greenberg (Halloween H20: 20 Years Later & The Prophecy II) had a crack at it, then later screenwriting team Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Problem Child, Ed Wood, American Crime Story) came in to do their own work on King’s short story. By itself, the story – also titled “1408” – is a great little haunted house-style tale. Only it takes place in a hotel, or rather hotels, as the main character Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a writer whose job takes him to various supposedly haunted locations in search of ghosts, those he never seems to find.Except now in the Dolphin Hotel, run by the ominously knowledgeable and honest Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson).
Many might expect a similar vibe to The Shining. And there are certainly elements of both which are slightly similar. On the whole, they are too vastly different stories. The idea of fathers, families, the emotional weight of the past, all these aspects are part of these two different King stories. However, 1408 takes on a much more contained plot, one that entails elements of the family drama we saw in the Torrance dilemma, but one that goes further into the supernatural, pitting a man whose scepticism for the world of ghosts puts him in a uniquely fragile position when confronted with their actual existence. Using the talents of John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, Håfström makes a creepshow out of King’s short story, doing justice to it completely. You’ll find yourself drawn into the room where Mike is faced with learning everything he believed wasn’t true is terrifyingly real, and whatever supernatural force exists in Room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel has set its eye on him.
There’s a difference between what I consider a proper jump scare and one that’s used to cheap effect. If there’s absolutely no reason for one, then I don’t understand the reason for a director to go for that type of gag. In turn, if they do that for a cheap scare it’s usually in place of their ability to cultivate actual suspense and tension. Many of those moments here will make you jump, though they serve as a perfect way to build up all the tense action. And honestly, in a hotel room haunted house-type film, what do you expect? There’s also an unsettling atmosphere throughout, so it isn’t built even 50% on jump scaring you to death. Much of what I find creepy is the gradual way Enslin comes around to believing there’s something supernatural actually happening. Because we start out with him totally sceptical. He doesn’t believe in any kind of ghosts. Once his night in the room progresses, things quickly change. Yet he first tries to explain away each event, rationalising, coming up with a legitimate reason these things could be happening. With each subsequent event, that scepticism slips, and soon enough the voice of his daughter comes to him. Even right before that he’s started slipping, but the voice is one of those final tipping points. His paranoia sets in and he tries to keep himself steady. The jump scares don’t just serve to unsettle the audience: they’re working to de-root Mike as the main character. For a time, he starts thinking more and more there’s someone entering the room, that Olin is orchestrating the whole thing, that he’s been drugged by the gifted liquor bottle, the candy in the room, so forth. All the elements come together in a hurricane of paranoid thought that drives him crazy. As opposed to say a low budget slasher that builds its entire fright factor on scaring you by heart attack jump moments, Håfström’s movie is a scary story that keeps your heart racing while also diving into the character study of its lead.
I just recently watched Cell, the latest King adaptation on VOD, and Cusack almost bored me to death with his similar portrayal of a father missing his child, albeit under differetn circumstances. Here, he is beyond fascinating. Mike Enslin is a solidly written character from King, then the screenplay gives him more time to play on our feelings. Best of all, Cusack does good work. In his other aforementioned role he couldn’t bring anything new, nor did he get too many scenes where the emotionality of his performance was required to break out in a big way. 1408 allows him the space to open up Enslin and explore what makes him who he is. For instance, part of the fact he’s sceptical has to do with his personal situation, the loss of a child, the fact that if he did believe in God and the afterlife that it might be beneficial for him, he could see his daughter again and things might feel better somehow. Once his scepticism is whittled away, this leaves him open, raw to the influence of ghosts, one of whom happens to be the spirit of his daughter lurking in the abyssal depths of that hotel’s black hole. Cusack displays the range necessary to make Enslin an empathetic character, he calls for us to understand his situation, as Håfström makes great directorial choices taking us between what’s really happening and what Mike sees happening inside the room right in front of his eyes. A single location in a movie can become boring. Not with Cusack in charge of acting duties. He pulls his weight to the fullest and sells every last inch of Enslin, the story, and the film together. While Jackson adds his flavour to the pot, and is enjoyable in a role that could come off as typical but works so perfectly, Cusack will always be the star of this show, obviously.
1408 has a couple missteps. Overall it’s 4-star horror. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (The Proposition, Lawless, The Theory of Everything) keeps each scene and sequence visually appealing. His aesthetic makes the hotel room into a world unto its own, a whole self-contained universe of terror. He’s an artist capable of using both light and dark to his advantage, rather than being totally relegated to one end of the spectrum. This makes for a lot of rich, colourful scenes within the hotel – partly due to its great look and design – and all the same, there’s a dark, shadowy essence at every corner.
With a nice atmosphere and look, the story takes off. Cusack sells the lead character, his change from sceptic to reluctant believer in the ghostly, supernatural world of haunted hotel rooms. One particular scene I love is when Mike tries to get a drink from the mini-bar, only to find Olin inside, taunting, and then Mike goes certifiably insane; a wildly impressive scene that could have easily gone over-the-top, but remains intensely honest from Cusack. Every little aspect to 1408 makes it chilling. You won’t sleep with one eye open afterwards. You may think twice about checking into an old hotel next time if you’ve heard about any murders, suicides, all those nasty events. Because King’s story comes alive in its dreadful madness under direction of Håfström, and it’s by far one of my favourite adaptations of his work in the past decade.