$1.99 local phone calls? Now that’s scary.
Directed by Mikael HÃ‚fström
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jaclson, Mary McCormack
Not a lot of people are familiar with S.B. 619, a bill rushed through the California state legislature in the early ’80s and signed into law by then governor Jerry Brown. The law stated simply that each and every short story or novel penned by Stephen King must be turned into a movie before the author’s death. Hollywood has done its best to abide by this tough law, producing something north of 100 features, short films, miniseries and television shows based on his original material. The problem is that King just keeps writing, making it harder and harder for the movie industry to keep up.
Now, the studios have had to contract out to Sweden, hiring on Nordic cameraslinger Mikael Håfström (director of such Euro thrillers as Ondskan and Strandvaskaren) to take on one of the two or three King adaptations hitting theaters in this calendar year. At the very least, we can all breathe a sigh of relief it isn’t Mick Garris sitting in the director’s chair. (After Sleepwalkers, The Stand, The Shining, Quicksilver Highway, Riding the Bullet and Desperation, the guy might want to find another author to stalk).
1408 just barely qualifies as a Stephen King story. It originally appeared as part of the appendix to King’s nonfiction book On Writing. There, he blasted off a couple quick pages of a ghost story as an example of how to write second drafts. Unwilling to toss away even the smallest of ideas, King took that two-page fragment and turned it into a complete tale, which was eventually recorded for the audiobook compilation Blood and Smoke.
1408 tells the story of author Mike Enslin (John Cusack), who makes his living penning cheap supernatural travel book like 10 Haunted Hotels and 10 Haunted Lighthouses. Enslin doesn’t believe in ghosts—partially because he’s never actually witnessed anything out of the ordinary and partially because he’s possessed by the sort of burned-out, spiritually empty nihilism that presages some sort of major character change.
Warned to stay away from New York’s aging but upscale Dolphin Hotel, Enslin takes up the challenge. A concerned hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson using his gravest possible voice) tries to talk our pen-wielding protagonist out of staying in the hotel’s hellish titular room number. Seems that more than 50 people have met their demise within that room’s floral-papered walls. Enslin isn’t one to be dissuaded.
Within minutes of checking in, however, Enslin is in the midst of a full-on, bug-eyed freakout, thanks to creepy phone calls, bleeding walls, murderous windows and a parade of suicidal ghosts of the past. The screenplay, penned alternately by Matt Greenberg (Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Problem Child 2), expands a bit on King’s lean original. The end result adds a bit more character texture, but not a whole lot more story. The film is basically one long string of strange happenings: stuff explodes, the room floods, snow falls, paintings change, the radio plays a lot of Carpenters tunes. None of it is accompanied by any explanation of how or why. None of it is particularly scary, either. Then again, we’re led to believe this is more of a psychological thriller than an out-and-out ghost story. Enslin isn’t just trapped in a haunted room, he’s trapped in his own mind. It’s a metaphor, man. Of course, none of that explains why Benny “The Jet” Urquidez keeps popping up and swinging a claw hammer.
Instead of simply killing him, as it has so many other guests, room 1408 takes Enslin on a journey of psychological and spiritual self-discovery, forcing him to confront the sins of his past. Why is the author so cynical? Why is he so isolated from his fellow man? Why does he avoid his past so stringently? All will be explained in a pat and cursory manner over the course of the film’s brief 97-minute runtime.
In the end, there’s nothing patently wrong with 1408. It’s not the freshest of King’s tales, recycling moments from The Shining and “The Ledge.” It keeps things moving at least, with crazy random crap happening to poor, wigged-out John Cusack every couple of minutes. It’s no Shawshank Redemption. Then again, it’s no Graveyard Shift either. Those looking for easy, PG-13 frights will probably log two or three goosebumps here and be vaguely satisfied until The Mist rolls in later this year.