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Looking Back: 1408 (2007)

Prior to this summer’s Stephen King Movie Renaissance, with the release of Nikolaj Arcel’s “The Dark Tower” and Andy Muschietti’s “It,” the last time we got a major summer movie based on a King novel was ten years ago, with Mikael Hafstrom’s “1408.”

What began as a you-finish-the-tale writing sample from King’s  non-fiction/partly instructional “On Writing” led to King completing the work himself and publishing the tale in his “Everything’s Eventual” short story compilation. On paper, “1408” is perfectly scary and compact. Taking place in a haunted hotel room and focusing on the journey of professional skeptic Mike Enslin’s horrifying hour alone in a room that’s trying to hurt him, it was an ideal topic for a short story. On paper, “1408” plays like a small-fry companion to King’s “The Shining”  and presented an un-cinematic, cerebral premise. King’s delicious, wordy set-up was one of the few moments in his tale that allowed back-and-forth patter. Otherwise, this is the story of a man going insane inside a hotel room. It didn’t read like a natural adaptation (or anything not burdened with overuse of voiceovers) could do it justice. The amazing thing about Hafstrom’s film of “1408” is that it’s not only very good but commits to a trim running time and not padding the big moments with filler.

John Cusack stars as Enslin, a minor celebrity who makes a living writing cheesy books on supernatural experiences he documents from the supposedly haunted spots he visits. Enslin’s deeply cynical nature masks a tortured past, in which a broken marriage and a deceased daughter aren’t far from his thoughts. A postcard from the Dolphin Hotel, warning Enslin not to go into room #1408, catches his attention. So does a follow up phone call, in which he’s told the room is never available to him.

Enslin engages in a playful but tense conversation with Mr. Olin (played by an excellent Samuel L. Jackson), the hotel manager. While Enslin suspects the legend around the haunted room is an attention-getting ruse, Olin ensure him it isn’t, offering a file full of grisly photos and over 50 deceased former hotel guests who’ve stayed in that room. Enslin can’t resist staying in the haunted room (despite being begged not to by Olin, who reveals that no can last more than an hour in room 1408), Olin ends their discussion (and it’s a superbly written scene) with this aside: “it’s an evil f#$%&** room.” With that, Enslin checks in and the movie takes off.

At first, the phenomena Enslin experiences are little oddities that could be explained by trickery (or, his initial guess, someone hiding in the room). As the night wears on and the minutes of an hour become increasingly creepier, Enslin (and the audience), wonder how much of what he sees is real.

The screenplay by Larry Karaszewski, Scott Alexander and Matt Greenberg is twisted and tight, with only a useless bit involving a surfing accident seeming like filler. Yet, they come circling back to that scene later on, teasing us with the possibility that Enslin’s near drowning has inspired his hallucinatory stay in room 1408. There are lots of great throway lines, with my favorite being: “Eight dollars for beer nuts? This room is evil.”  A few moments early only offer jump scares and ominous signs that seem corny (like the use of The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun”). As the film unleashes a torrent of surprises and spooky, sleight of hand visuals, it gradually goes beyond TV movie-worthy King and becomes truly scary.

Cusack is, in many ways, is the whole show here. It was an odd choice to assign him the role, even after his lead turn in “Identity.” He tears into the tortured anguish, wall of cynicism and crumbling sanity of Enslin and easily delivers one of his best performances. Coming right before “Grace is Gone” (another Cusack led film about a man coping with death), 2007 marked a year of back-to-back acting milestones for Cusack. Jackson is excellent as Olin the hotel caretaker and his great cameo appearance, as well as the supporting turns by Mary McCormack and Isaiah Whitlock Jr., are worthy of mention. Yet, Cusack is so strong, you likely won’t remember anyone else’s performance.

The ending offers a uniquely cruel twist, though it’s in line with how King paints his villain. The movie works as well as the spirits do on Enslin: when they play fair and attack his perception of reality, it creates unease and tension. When the room plays dirty, it feels overdone.  The spirits within room 1408 are deeply cruel, hit below the belt and will do anything to win. In other words, an evil [email protected]#$%^& room.

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