The Reeler


June 22, 2007


Cusack and his demons get a room in tiresome thriller

Here's a filmmaking conundrum for you: How do you make a film about a person being tortured, without making the audience feel like they're being tortured as well? The person onscreen runs a gamut of emotions, from pain, to grief, to exasperation. The people in the theater can only really feel fear and empathy before they go from enjoying the scares to actively disliking the experience and feeling as though they're stuck in the same hell as the torturee. In the case of the promising but ultimately tiresome 1408, after watching John Cusack fumble and freak out for over an hour, it's like, enough already. Hasn't he (and haven’t we) suffered enough?

Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a horror novelist who has carved out a niche writing supernatural travelogues; he visits and debunks famous sites of paranormal activity. When we meet Mike it's several books and many miles into his travels, with no ghosts to be found. An anonymous postcard directs him to New York's Dolphin Hotel and its allegedly haunted room, 1408 (the numbers add up to 13, tee hee). Mike wants to spend the night, but the Dolphin's dictatorial manager, Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), doesn't think it's such a good idea. Strange things happen to anyone who goes in there, he warns. Electronic devices don't work. People have a habit of flinging themselves out the room's window. When maids clean the room, they do it in pairs with the door wide open. Even then, there have been some "incidents."

Enslin is undeterred and eventually Olin relents. At first, the vindictive room versus its inhabitant works as a dark comedy: Enslin opens the window, the room slams it down on him. He tries to wash his hands and the faucet scalds him; he turns up the air conditioner and the room literally freezes. 1408 is possessed, all right -- by the ghost of a total asshole.

After a few minutes of light cruelty, however, 1408 grows darker, as the room starts to dredge up true horror from Enslin's past as a husband and father. And just when Mike thinks he's out, the room pulls him back in. The more we learn about Mike's tragic past, the more it's clear that whatever mistakes he made, he's not a bad person, just unfortunate. Though director Mikael Hafstrom may intend Enslin's experience in the room to be a positive one -- an exorcism of inner demons -- in a sense, the poor schlub seems to be suffering undeserved punishment. This could conceivably endear the movie to the same audience that went to see the recently released, heavily promoted and hotly debated Hostel: Part II, but it doesn't to me.

Enslin is meant to be beaten down by life, and Cusack's performance, particularly before he enters the Tower of Terror, alternately looks appropriately exhausted and inappropriately bored, only occasionally flashing the charm and wit that's endeared him to movie audiences for decades. Samuel L. Jackson, who adds an air of intensity and believability to all of his genre work, from Star Wars to Deep Blue Sea, is perfect as the hotel manager. Too bad he's only appears three times in the entire picture, and only once during Enslin's extended abuse. The screenplay by Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (from a short story by Stephen King) has an equal share of clever moments (dig that "Encyclopedia Brown" reference!) and groan-inducing clunkers (Sam Jackson actually uses the phrase, "Very good. I see you've done your homework!").

In 1960, 1408 would have been 70 minutes long, (Vincent Price would have played the Jackson role), which is the right length for a cheeky, spooky movie based on a short story about a demented hotel room. Today, the thing has to run 95 minutes, and be loaded with lots of added gags and special effects that pad its length but actually diminish its total effect. There are only so many things a killer domicile can do to a man before you just throw up your hands. By the time Enslin's nearly drowning in his own bed, it's like watching a full-length deadpan version of Edgar Wright's Don't! trailer from Grindhouse. DON'T -- look at the paintings! DON'T -- unplug the radio! DON'T -- try your wireless Internet! And especially DON'T -- trust all those red herrings!

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