Friday, October 3, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF "1408" (2007)

Watching the creepy John Cusack horror chiller "1408" (*** out of ****) reminded me of the spooky Jack Nicholson screamer "The Shining," except everything that occurred on a grand scale in an entire hotel in the Nicholson picture is confined to one single room occupancy in the Cusack epic. Not surprisingly, talented Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom of "Derailed" and scenarists Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski took their haunted room opus "1408" from a short story by "Shining" author Stephen King. "1408" concerns a notorious room at the Hotel Dauphin in New York City that nobody spends more than an hour in before they either commit suicide or die from natural causes. Compared with previous haunted house movies, this gripping, white-knuckled adaptation of a Stephen King yarn doesn't break any new ground. Nevertheless, Hafstrom illustrates that with good writing and agile directing 'less' can actually mean 'more.' Actor John Cusack, who has never starred in a throat-throttling tale of terror, is virtually the whole show and his persuasive performance rivals the first-rate computer generated special effects. Hardcore gorehounds may grimace at this PG-13 nail biter because you won't see private body parts hacked up and fed to German Shepherds as in "Hostel: Part II." Basically, "1408" qualifies as a stimulating, old-fashioned horror movie whose psychological plot invites favorable comparison with Rod Serling's venerable TV show "The Twilight Zone"

Mike Enslin (John Cusack of "Identity") has acquired a 'ghost buster' reputation for the books he has written where he exposes haunted houses with supernatural apparitions as hoaxes. Mike doesn't believe in ghosts, but he is as game as he is curious. One day a postcard arrives about the Hotel Dauphin and its room 1408. He tries to register at the Dauphin to spend a night in the room, but the innkeepers refuse to accommodate our hero. Enslin's publisher Sam Farrell (Tony Shalhoub of TV's "Monk") threatens the hotel with a civil rights lawsuit. Halfheartedly, hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson of "Snakes on a Plane") allows Mike to check in, but not before he enlightens the author about 1408's tragic history. Earlier, Mike had discovered in his research that 4 people killed themselves in 1408, but Olin surprises him with more revelations. Fifty-six other guests died from natural causes after they stayed in 1408. One of Olin's maids gouged out her eyes out when he left her unattended in the room for a few minutes. Predictably, Mike dismisses Olin's admonitions as hokum. He points out that he has been at some of the worst nightmare palaces in the U.S. and proved that none were haunted. Mike's skepticism doesn't get him very far after he shuts the door to 1408 and settles in for the evening. Less than twenty minutes later strange things transpire. The AM-FM clock radio begins an hour-long countdown and the classic top-40 Carpenter's tune "We've Only Just Begun" splits his eardrums. No matter how many times that Mike shuts off or unplugs the AM-FM clock radio, the possessed appliance recovers. Mike finally goes over the edge when a window inexplicably slams down on his hand and draws blood. Mike decides it's time to bail, but he's too late. When he tries to unlock the door from the inside with the key, the keyhole devours the key and the knob snaps off in Mike's fist when he yanks on it.

"Derailed" director Mike Hafstrom relies on imagination rather than blood and gore to frighten the fiddlesticks out of you in ''1408." Of course, he resorts to the time-honored horror movie tactics of having something leap out at you without warning, but he doesn't plow this tactic into the ground. Moreover, he refrains from harrowing depictions of axe-wielding felons on chopping sprees. There are several moments in "1408" when it appears as if nothing is occurring in the quaint hotel room. For example, Mike uses his laptop to instant message his ex-wife Lily (Mary McCormack of "Mystery, Alaska," who lives in Manhattan, to tell her about his predicament. However, after the N.Y.P.D. investigates, they inform Lily that they found nobody in room 1408. At another point, Mike tries desperately to escape from the room by climbing out onto the ledge, but what he sees outside scares him so badly that he returns to the room. Not long afterward, Mike has hallucinations that his young daughter Katie (newcomer Jasmine Jessica Anthony) who died from cancer has come back to console him. Is Mike going insane? Does evil really dwell in the hotel? "1408" emerges as one of the better horror movies about demonic hotels. Hafstrom's suspenseful 94-minute saga surpasses the half-baked Ashley Judd psycho drama "Bug," splashes less blood and gore than Eli Roth's "Hostel: Part II," and puts its hero through more mind-blowing ordeals than Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson faced in their own off-beat serial killers-in-a-hotel-room thriller "Vacancy." Altogether, "1408" is one eerie creep show that delivers the shivers without sickening you with its skullduggery.

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