1408 (2007)

Regular Gorepress readers may have noticed my propensity for simple, ghosty horror movies, and 1408, an adaptation of a Stephen King short story, is no exception. It follows Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a jaded author who has built a living on documenting alleged haunted buildings with little success. Increasingly cynical and pessimistic, when he receives an anonymous postcard inviting him to stay in Room 1408 of New York’s Dolphin Hotel, his curiosity is piqued. Ignoring the pleas of the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (a surprisingly understated Samuel L. Jackson), Eslin checks in, lucky cigarette tucked behind his ear…and once the door is shut, the fun begins. It’s the archetypical haunted house story: man is told not to stay in house. Man stays in house regardless. Man suffers the consequences. Clichéd, yes, but, in the right hands, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And fortunately, director Mikael Håfström has those hands.

For saying that 1408 is effectively The John Cusack Show, he carries it remarkably well; with such a heavy burden on a single person, lesser actors could have easily lost the audience (especially portraying such a caustic character), but Cusack plays Enslin with just the right amount of humility and self-deprecation mixed in with all the acrimony to ensure that, in the end, you’re still rooting for him.

Even from the moment Enslin steps in, alone, to 1408, his soliloquies are just as engaging; and regardless of the fact that when spooky starts going down he is, effectively and for the most part, just reacting to furniture, Cusack still plays it surprisingly believably, never letting it descend into pantomime.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the film as a whole. Don’t get me wrong; the large majority of it is wonderfully eerie, the focus being very much on subtlety – ordinary objects seeming to act of their own accord, a mysterious figure watching Enslin from afar, an alarm clock with an oddly specific taste in music – however, Håfström lets slip here and there, allowing the film to get a little hokey in places, especially in the last third: a number of the ghosties that haunt 1408 manifest as pretty regular-looking people, undermining a lot of the tension that the film may have previously constructed…not to mention proving the adage that what the imagination conjures up can often be a lot scarier than anything film can portray.

By setting 1408 largely within the confines of the room itself, Håfström creates a wonderful sense of claustrophobia that really helps elevate Cusack’s performance. The longer the film goes on, and the further Enslin sinks into his own personal hell, the smaller the room seems. Highlighting this is the fact that occasionally both we and Enslin get glimpses of the outside, as Enslin reaches out of his window to look at the street below: simple isolation is one thing, but being isolated whilst being able to see people going about their daily business without being able to communicate with them is totally different.

It’s a shame, because actually, the type of subtlety that this film exhibits has all but been lost from mainstream horror in recent years, and had 1408 stuck to its early guns, it may have influenced the landscape of horror cinema for the better. Instead, it slipped by relatively unnoticed, which is a rather undeserved outcome for what is a wonderfully old-school horror film.

And incidentally, ‘Eslin and Olin’ would make a great 1970′s buddy cop movie.

Rating: ★★★★★★★½☆☆

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