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"1408"
(2007) (John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: An author of ghostly haunts travel books finds his skeptical resolve challenged when he checks into a reportedly haunted hotel room with a record of many deaths occurring within it.
PLOT:
Mike Enslin (JOHN CUSACK) is a California-based travel guide author who writes about various ghostly haunts. Despite making a living from the public's fascination with ghosts, he doesn't believe in them, God, or the hereafter, mainly due to the untimely death of his young daughter Katie (JASMINE JESSICA ANTHONY), a personal tragedy that eventually caused him to abandon his wife, Lily (MARY McCORMACK), back in New York.

Having received an anonymous postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City that warns him not to enter room 1408, Mike's interest is obviously piqued. That's especially true when the phone operator informs him that the room is, in short, perpetually booked. With advice from a lawyer that New York law states that if a room is not occupied, it must otherwise be made available, Mike travels to the Big Apple where he meets Gerald Olin (SAMUEL L. JACKSON). He's the manger at the Dolphin who implores the author not to stay in the room.

Mike is undeterred, thinking Gerald's stories of suicides, self-maiming and other odd doings, not to mention a total of 56 deaths in the room's 95-year history, are all just scare tactics designed to heighten the experience. Accordingly, and despite repeated warnings and pleas, Mike checks into the room, only to find it quite ordinary. Dictating his observations and findings into a tape recorder, he soon realizes he may have bitten off more than he can chew and might be in way over his head in terms of the paranormal happenings he begins to experience there.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Anyone who ever did a book report in school knows that authors are sometimes troubled souls to various extents, and whose personal demons often make their way into their works. For some novelists, it's likely cathartic if not therapeutic, whereas others just use any or all of that as fodder for their writing.

I'll admit I know next to nothing about Stephen King the man, and have only read a few of his best-selling novels and short stories, although I have seen most every movie adaptation of his works. Yet, from what I can see, he would probably need to burn up plenty of therapy session hours if not for using his tales for the same purpose.

A common thread in at least some of his works is that of the writer who's tortured in one way or another. In "Misery," the scribe not only suffers a car accident, but also the "recuperative" care of his number-one fan. In "The Shining," Jack Nicholson's character goes off the deep end -- with some paranormal help -- in proving that, yes indeed, all work and no play does make the writer a dull boy.

With the short story "1408," King once again returned to the writer in trouble plot, and once more set his character in a haunted hotel where things that go bump in the night lead to a mental breakdown. Yet, rather than setting the story in the majestic yet isolated and mostly deserted Overlook Hotel in the middle of snowy nowhere, King places this one in the near capacity Dolphin Hotel in the heart of bustling New York City.

Working from an adaptation of King's work by the screenwriting trio of Matt Greenberg and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, director Mikael Håfström ("Derailed") faces the daunting task of trying to make this essentially one-set film crackle with enough suspense and scares to justify its expansion into a feature-length film.

Interestingly enough, 2007 seems to be the year of one-room horror flicks, what with this offering and both "Bug" and "Vacancy" that earlier preceded it. And, for what it's worth, it also marks another outing featuring John Cusack and bad times at a place of lodging (following "Identity). Note to self -- cancel all travel plans this year and inform Mr. Cusack that we're afraid hotels and motels are out if he invites us to travel with him (and after last year's horrific comedy "RV," don't fall for that suggestion either).

Anyway, the film starts off promisingly enough, with Cusack playing a haunted travel guide author who, as irony and screenwriting conventions would have it, doesn't believe in the supernatural (for reasons, natch, that will later be explored in the story).

Thus, when he receives an anonymous warning not to visit the titular room in that Big Apple hotel, and then hears what he believes is the normal ghostly nonsense designed to spook the gullible, we know his likely comeuppance is near. And based on the stories of death and woe in the room -- not to mention repeated warnings to stay out -- imparted by the hotel manager played by Samuel "I Love to Drop the F-Bomb" Jackson, the stage seems to be set for some spooky and maybe even scary doings.

While we're treated to a few of both offerings, the film far too quickly gets away from the possibility of someone just messing with Mike to try to scare him (that's his thought for a few moments, but the story quickly segues into the "real" terror).

For the most part, it then becomes an increasingly redundant exercise in seeing how many different ways the production design team can alter, rearrange, and otherwise mess with the room (which is actually something of a suite with two main areas and a small bathroom). First it's hot, and later it's freezing cold, and in between the floor cracks, the wall bleeds, and various ghosts and real or imagined figures pop up and then disappear just as quickly.

Although the filmmakers occasionally get the protagonist out of the room (out onto the building ledge or up into the ventilation system that, in standard Hollywood logic, is strong enough to support a grown man's weight), for the most part they, their character, and thus the viewer are all stuck together in a room that starts out spooky, but progressively loses that scary edge as things wear on.

That also holds true when a wife and child character (played by Mary McCormack and Jasmine Jessica Anthony) are introduced as the standard Hollywood explanation for why the main character is the way he is. It's material that feels tacked on and doesn't really do anything for the story or up the scare factor.

That's unlike in "The Shining" where we worried about the wife and child, not only regarding the ghosts and such, but also the increasingly unhinged father and husband figure. Coupled with Stanley Kubrick's terrific direction (gotta love that early Steadicam work), a spooky score, and the terrific production design that turned the hotel into character itself, the movie was and still is a brilliant, 5-diamond piece of cinematic horror.

In comparison, "1408" feels more like a haunted house attraction at any state fair (filled with various mechanisms designed to give viewers a jolt, including a haunted clock radio that proves The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" is one scary song) where you wouldn't want to spend any more time than the allotted 90-some minute stay.

That isn't because it's too scary, but rather because it only partially works on a superficial level that never really gets under your skin, and thus doesn't unnerve you like Kubrick's version of the tormented writer. It rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed June 19, 2007 / Posted June 22, 2007


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