Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack
There was a point about halfway through “1408″ where I thought, “Crap. I’m now gonna be too creeped out to stay in hotel rooms anymore.” After the two-thirds mark, though, the creeping terror had been replaced with a weary sigh: “Ooh, look — we’re in the Disneyland Haunted Mansion.”
Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom’s second Hollywood effort (after “Derailed,” which got pilloried on RottenTomatoes) is stylish, assured and creepy. The film starts out with a tone that falls somewhere between the brilliance of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and recent remade-from-Japan stuff like “The Ring“ and last year’s midlevel “Dark Water.” As with those two movies, “1408″ is not about shock and gore but about slowly unfolding menace.
We meet writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack), whose one literary novel seems now a bitter memory as he cranks out “Haunted Hotel” and “Haunted Cemetery” guidebooks for the supernaturally credible. There’s a sadness to him, and as he starts on the path that leads to the titular room 1408, his past is unfolding just as the supernatural tension is about to start building.
Hafstrom and his three credited screenwriters are trying to create a psychological thriller, which makes picking a star like John Cusack inspired. Our review of the Fantastic Four sequel last week observed that Jessica Alba does not so much act as put expressions on her face the way she puts on eyeliner — it sits there on the surface and is obviously artificial. Cusack is the exact opposite. In all of his films, you see a living, thought-out character who feels real, and you believe that there is a lot more story to that character than we’re getting on the screen. Sure, Cusack specializes in a certain struggling range of witty and melancholy men, guys who have to learn a few lessons to move past some pain or obstacle, but he’s not the self-parody that is Hugh Grant. Cusack is one of the very few actors who can be counted on to deliver — his movies are almost always good, and when they’re not, he is still quite good, and you can see what attracted him to the project. “1408″ is more a case of the latter.
Cusack’s character learns of the haunted room in New York’s Dolphin Hotel from a mysterious postcard with a picture of the hotel on the front and the words, “Don’t stay in 1408″ on the back. That we never learn who sent the postcard, or why, is a minor example of the essential problem with the film: There’s some well-executed material here, but the filmmakers can’t tie it all together. The next example of this is when Cusack meets the hotel manager, who is very reluctant to have anyone stay in the haunted room. The manager is a very elegant and urbane Samuel L. Jackson, and he is a pleasure to watch as he tells Cusack of the 56 deaths, suspicious and natural, that have occurred in that sinister room over the decades.
Jackson comes off as a sincere man genuinely unwilling to rent the room to Cusack, if for no other reason than that he doesn’t want to clean up the inevitable mess. Later in the film, we start to wonder if that is all there is to Jackson’s cameo-sized character, but we’re given only a hint of this possibility, and no hint of resolution. Nor do we learn what possesses the room in question, or why.
This is not to say that every mystery needs to be neatly wrapped up and given to the viewer with a pretty pink bow on top. But essential questions like, “Why is this happening?” and “What makes Cusack special?” are pretty vital. The film isn’t about any of the 56 people who died before, so the extent to which Cusack’s case is different — will he be the only one to survive the room? Or will his death be the one that ends the curse, or at least explains it? Why are we getting this story of room 1408? — is a question the viewer deserves to have answered.
As the room attacks Cusack not just with impersonal frights and freakouts but literal ghosts from his own troubled past, we realize that Cusack is here to work out his own psychological traumas. One issue, the apparent ghost of his father, is never explained or resolved in any way. Cusack’s main pain, while addressed much more, isn’t really dealt with in terms of the room — why does the room give a crap whether an occupant can, say, save his marriage?
This problem doesn’t hurt the first two thirds of the film at all. Cusack’s stay in the room builds the creepiness wonderfully. Little things start going wrong, weirdness that he assumes is a human prankster. As the freakouts build, his skepticism gives way — he realizes that there is a supernatural agent at work. The exact nature of these freakouts are original and disturbing (there’s one where Cusack tries to call for help to a lit window across the street) or old-fashioned (a slasher seems to leap out of nowhere, then vanishes) but well-executed in either event.
Halstrom has a subtle technique that is really effective. Especially before the room gets out of control, he frames common objects in a menacing way. Cusack sits on the bed and dictates notes into a tape recorder, a prosaic shot, but the director frames a table lamp off to the side but insanely foreground, like a Sergio Leone shot, or else the phone on the table is lit and positioned in such a way that the viewer is deeply conscious of it, and these objects become menacing. I wrote in my notes, “Suddenly I’m afraid of lamps.” It’s a great technique, and you barely notice it’s going on as you become increasingly ill at ease.
So how does all this go wrong? Eventually, the room’s attacks go over the top and stop being scary in a way that feels real, becoming too fantastic to relate to. You don’t wanna shower right after you watch “Psycho,” but does anyone go to sleep afraid of nightmare monsters after watching “Nightmare on Elm Street”? It would seem that this is due in part to the filmmaker’s inability to relate Cusack’s personal problems (absent in the original Stephen King short story, “1408″) to the unexplained malevolence of the room. So rather than create a link, they just make the room scarier and weirder, and Cusack’s situation more dire. When the dust settles, we know that Cusack’s ordeal is over, but we don’t know why.
In the final analysis: Fans of psychological horror films may enjoy this for what it gets right, despite what it gets wrong (I’m giving its rating a bit of a boost on that questionable principal). And fans of Cusack will enjoy a good performance. But, as with too many movies in this summer blockbuster season, you have to go in resigned to being disappointed with the overall package.