Over the last few years horror films seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Film makers have neglected to put anything actually scary into their movies, mistakenly thinking that a bucket load of gore equates to scares. It doesn’t! Films like Saw and Hostel are certainly gruesome but they are not actually scary, just repugnant. There is a big difference between being disgusted with what is on the screen, to being actually scared of what is going to happen next. The last time I was actually spooked watching a film was during Wolf Creek, and to a certain extent Pan’s Labyrinth, where the sense of terror built up by the film maker was tangible. As for the old fashioned ghost story, well that seemed like a genre consigned to film history, so it’s nice to see director Mikael Hafstrom try to give it the kiss of life with this decidedly old fashioned film.
Hafstrom worked primarily in his native Sweden until 2005 when he went to Hollywood to direct the underrated Jennifer Aniston film Derailed. Generally criticised on release, it was actually a pretty good thriller that showed a director with a lot of promise. Now he delivers on that promise with a way above average adaptation of a Stephen King short story, and as two of the best King adaptations were based on his short stories – The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me – he had a lot to live up to. While not quite matching the dizzying heights of those efforts he has at least produced something way above the quality of The Lawnmower Man.
John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a man who’s lost his child to illness and has spent the subsequent years writing books about supposedly haunted hotels and guest houses across America. Although never actually finding proof of supernatural phenomena, Mike remains hopeful that one day he will find evidence of an afterlife. One day he receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York telling him not to try staying in the titular room 1408, which proves too much of a temptation and before you can say Rentaghost he’s on the first plane out.
On arrival he is greeted by the hotel's manager, played with uncharacteristic restraint by Samuel L Jackson, who proceeds to give him a roll call of the people who have died in the room over the previous decades in order to dissuade him from his mission. One hour is the record for staying in the room before guests slit their wrists, hang themselves or throw themselves out of the window but Mike is convinced that it’s all hype to get tourists into the hotel. So he checks in.
From this point on we are alone with Cusack in the room, and it’s to his credit that we not only believe what is happening to him but we also care. In the hands of a lesser actor or someone prone to over emotional performances, this would have made the final hour of the film a real endurance test but Cusack is a great everyman, and an easy character to identify with. Even when things start to get very over the top we are always on his side and hoping that it’s all in his head, and in his head it may well be. The film makers have the courage not to spoon feed us any answers, and just when you think you have it all worked out you are thrown a curveball that makes you re-examine what you have seen.
Even the ending is delightfully ambiguous and will have you discussing its meaning on the way out of the cinema.
Gore is kept to a minimum in 1408; the scares here are more psychological. A mint on a pillow or a neatly folded toilet roll scares more in this film than anything in both Hostel films put together, and any film that can make We've Only Just Begun by the Carpenters scary must have something going for it. The special effects start small and build to some big set pieces and it has to be said towards the end the effects start to overwhelm the human story, but through it all Cusack keeps the audience with him. No mean feat when you’re up against arctic blizzards and biblical floods! Misery is the film that kept coming to my mind while watching this (with a bit of The Shining thrown in for good measure) with the psychotic Annie Wilkes replaced by evil spirits keeping an author captive against his will. In the end though this is a film about loss and grief and the way people handle these emotions and as such it is an unusually emotional piece of work