Tuesday, October 23, 2007

'1408': A horror movie with a heart

“1408” is the latest film to tout the catchphrase “from the mind of Stephen King.” Few would debate that King is the quintessential horror writer of the last 30 years, but his works has had mixed results when transitioning to film. For every “Carrie” or “Green Mile” there are numerous duds.

Interestingly, it is his short fiction that seems to fair best in the world of film. “Stand By Me,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Apt Pupil” - all taken from “Different Seasons” - are among the best King adaptations. “1408” – a story from the “Everything’s Eventual” collection - isn’t quite of that caliber, but is a compelling haunted house tale.

“1408” starts with a basic horror premise. Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a writer who checks into supposedly haunted hotels to debunk them in a popular books series. This is the excuse he gives himself and others, but his real motivation is a desperate need to know there’s an afterlife following the death of his daughter. His cynical, sarcastic front crumbles quickly once he enters the demonic room of the title which is reported to kill anyone who stays in it within an hour.

King has written about writers many times before, most notably in “The Shining” and “Misery,” the former of which “1408” will inevitably be compared to and while there are similar themes, including the lead characters’ alcoholism, “1408” has a different and more simple agenda. Where in the “Shining” you watch a man descent into madness, “1408” shows Cusack struggling with his demons and looking for closure for the loss of his daughter.

Director Mikael Håfström avoids Kubrick’s visual palate and creates his own gothic vision that is arresting and affecting. This is not a gore fest like so much of the horror fare populating multiplexes and living rooms. There are solid jumps, but the film ties your gut in knots by creating an atmosphere of dread. A sinister clock, ticking down the hour and blaring out the Carpenter’s “It Has Only Just Begun” adds to the tension as the film plays out more or less in real time once Cusack enters the room.

At times the film’s special effects nearly take over with the room flooding, freezing and burning, but Cusack’s strong performance anchors the film. Cusack has always been a non-traditional leading man and is best known for his offbeat, quirky romantic persona, but he is more talented than he is given credit for. “1408” which is more or less a one-man show is the perfect showcase for him.

Fans of “High Fidelity” will be familiar with Cusack’s ability to add flavor to lengthy speeches and it helps he is given intelligent, funny dialogue by screenwriters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski that captures King’s unique voice.

While the film is largely Cusack monologing into a tape recorder as he tries to hold his sanity together, he does have some deliciously playful early scenes with Samuel L. Jackson as a hotel manager. Their scenes together have more zest than some whole films.

At the center of the film is the loss of Cusack’s daughter and the way the room taunts and teases Cusack with his greatest hurt is what gives the film more weight than the average spook fest. There is one scene that has an emotional impact that few will expect. It is rare today that a horror film will actually give you goosebumps and a lump in your throat and that’s what makes “1408” special.

No comments: