Movies We Don't Talk About Often Enough: Stephen King's '1408'
Upon it’s release, Stephen King’s 1408 — now on Hulu — was mislabeled as a horror movie, but there’s no blood or guts here. There’s no mutilation, no poking, piercing, or filleting. There’s nothing “horrific” about 1408. It’s not a horror movie, folks; it’s a fucking scary movie. It’s a crawl up in your seat, hide from the projector screen, and lose-your-shit freak-out that is as scary as anything released this century.
Based on a Stephen King short story, the movie concerns Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a writer who travels the country to visit locales noted for their haunted nature. In all the years that Enslin has been doing so, he’s never seen anything unusual. He’s a burned-out, atheistic skeptic — another one of King’s typical non-believers destined to get his comeuppance. The origins of that comeuppance come in the form of an anonymous post card he receives warning him not to stay in Room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel, which is exactly what he plans to do. It will make a nice final chapter, he reckons, for his next book, Haunted Hotel Rooms.
The manager of the Dolphin, Gerald Olin (Sam Jackson, in a small but effective role), doesn’t want Enslin staying in the room, which — since 1912 — has been the final resting place for 56 guests, many of whom have met grisly, self-inflicted deaths and others, untimely natural ones. Olin closed the room to the public in the 70s, but because of some manufactured loophole in a civil rights law, he’s forced to allow Enslin to occupy 1408, although he ominously warns him that no one has ever survived an entire hour. It’s not phantoms or specters, he says, it’s just an “evil fucking room.”
No fucking shit.
For the first few minutes, things seem normal, ordinary. “Some smartass said something about the banality of evil,” Enslin remarks into his tape recorder. “And if that’s so, this is the seventh circle of hell.” But, then Karen Carpenter chimes up from the clock/radio as it counts down from 60:00, and I swear to you, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” will never sound the same to you again. Who the hell knew that song could sound so goddamn creepy? I don’t want to say much about what happens in the room, though even if I’d wanted to, it’d be impossible to spoil it. It’s not what happens inasmuch as it is the experience of watching it unfold. It’s got a creepy phone operator. The weather changes. The Carpenters continue to taunt Enslin. His dead daughter makes frequent visits. And, of course, there’s that pervasive sense of dread that permeates the hotel room and keeps the audience tense, uncomfortable, and freaked the hell out.
For the willing, it’s easy to give into the claustrophobic terror of Room 1408. Credit the excellent job of the director (Mikael Hafstrom , who redeemed himself after the awful Derailed, but has since returned to banal Redbox fare) for not feeling the need to throw in a lot of unnecessary gore; the disturbing and unnerving imagery does the job. The real success of 1408 is the pitch-perfect casting of Cusack — he’s convincing, in part, because it’s so unusual to see the normally mild-mannered, unusually detached Lloyd Dobbler completely lose his mind. The plot developments probably won’t satisfy everyone (there was even a few brief moments when it seemed as though 1408 would veer off into Identity-copout territory), but I can almost guarantee that, if you allow it, something in Room 1408 will scare the living hell out of you, even if you aren’t ultimately pleased with the film’s logic or with its ultimate conclusion — undeniably, the film’s scare tactics are better than its narrative arc.
Adaptations of Stephen King’s horror novels, which — with few exceptions (The Shining, maybe Misery) — rarely capture the psychological torment of King’s storytelling abilities. I’ve jumped, recoiled, and felt the tension of suspense, but not since I was young enough not to be able to make the distinction between a movie and reality have I so thoroughly bought into the fear of watching a terrifying film. 1408 would have The Blair Witch quaking under her goddamn theater seat.
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