Monday, January 25, 2016

1408 / *** (2007)

The common decree of the haunted house formula insists that harmful energies must exist in places where great pain has been inflicted – that in order for there to be a legitimate case for ghostly curses to remain behind, some sort of catalyst must lurk underneath, waiting for someone perceptive enough to trigger release. Rarely do writers and film directors deviate from that standard, although they are apt to stretch the possibilities. Consider a recent series like “Insidious,” or the ambitious “The Conjuring.” What do they have in common beyond their own self-reliant boundaries? Each implores the use of details that heighten the stakes of the outcome, usually at the service of climaxes that stretch the limits of the stories (or highlight strange fragments in the psyches of the characters). And in even rarer cases there are those infrequent journeys through locales that create impossible mysteries; they become mere devices to propel the personal dilemmas of the victims, and one is often left to wonder what – if any – source could inspire so much evil.

One of the great examples of that niche value is “The Shining,” Stephen King’s engrossing yarn about a family trapped in the halls of a mountainous hotel during a blizzard, which gradually drifts into the quiet but dangerous membranes of insanity. Director Stanley Kubrick saw King’s classic premise as a launch point for more oblique cinematic intentions, and history repeats itself (somewhat) with “1408,” about a writer who too unravels in the embrace of a dwelling that seems to permeate negative energies. His is an experience more immediate and sensational than what Jack Torrance endured at the fabled Overlook Hotel, but naturally so; this is a man who has dedicated himself to proving the mysteries of haunted houses wrong in rather pedestrian novels, and the very idea of coming into contact with a hotel room made legendary by a string of violent deaths is a case too delicious to resist. The obligatory outcome is that his cynicism must be eroded in order for him to confront the possibilities while dealing with unresolved personal traumas – it has to, otherwise there would be no point for a movie about such experiences to exist.

The good news is that director Mikael Hafstrom has made a rather fascinating film with this idea, an excursion through the psychological intrigue of the human mind that is precise, tense, atmospheric and performed with great dramatic intensity. It stars John Cusack as Mike Enslin, a writer who has relegated his output to trashy novels about the most haunted locales in America, where he essentially highlights their histories while undermining the certainty of their legendary eeriness. Though his publisher (Tony Shalhoub) is supportive of the excursions enough to release them, an early scene emphasizes the audience’s common disinterest: at a book signing, there are more empty seats than readers listening in on his sales pitch. This was not always part of Mike’s dreary routine, however, and after a supportive fan engages him in a discussion about his first novel – a fictional composition that apparently didn’t sell as well as it should have – it serves to frame his existence in a perspective of declining relevance. This is a man who once believed in what he was doing, but somehow lost his way and now rests in creative doldrums that diminish his own value.

One day, a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel arrives in his possession; on the back, it threateningly reads, “stay away from Room 1408!.” The first of many clues of foreshadowing is the number; the digits add up to 13, implying superstitious calamity. When he attempts to book the room for an overnight stay, he is promptly hung up on by the reservations clerk. While researching the archives at the newspaper morgue, he discovers dozens of cases of tragic death occurring there – some of them strange and unexplained, others bloody beyond comprehension (all apparent suicides). Is it merely a case of coincidence? Are the people who have checked into it simply a string of individuals suffering from mental illness? Or is there something more mystifying just waiting to be discovered? Either way (although he suspects the former), the mere existence of such a place fuels his desires to research and investigate, and against the wishes of a pessimistic hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson) dead-set on changing his mind, Mike checks in for what he suspects will be an ordinary stay.

Nothing is ordinary about 1408. The thermostat holds temperatures either too hot or too cold for comfort. The radio on the alarm clock goes off randomly, playing the same old song – “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters – to a point of unsettling persistence. The walls begin to crack and leak muddy substances. He sees apparitions of older victims, crying and distraught, before they leap to their deaths at a nearby window. And just as Mike starts to suspect that the hotel might be intentionally setting him up for some kind of frightening experience, he is injured by a window that slams on his hand – a foreshadowing device in most horror films, which suggests that the moment when blood is spilled is the moment when souls come into the possession of malevolent supernatural forces. Most of his observations are documented via a voice recorder, an amusing contrast to the suggestive visual danger; as his skepticism gradually erodes and becomes outright paranoia, the editorial content of his monologues becomes more insistent, morose, and enigmatic. And eventually it gives way to a reveal of sad memories about the death of a young daughter, which has essentially been the catalyst in his descent into professional deadlock (not to mention personal isolation).

Watching these details rise to the surface, I reflected on the nature of King’s most famous stories – namely, how the most frightening ones are made so by the notion that paranormal energies so decisively attach themselves to the pain and suffering of their victims, who have usually endured the kinds of personal trauma that make them incapable of resisting dangerous urges. Cusack’s character embodies those traits in all the conventional ways, but his dialogue (often perceptive and insightful) is cause to question the premise beyond the traditional considerations. Does a room like 1408 exist here to harvest the suffering of its occupants? Does the violent act of one create an echo that serves as a prison for all those that follow? Or worse yet, is it possible – just possible – that a man like Mike is drawn to it by an unseen voice, who senses his sadness and desires to feed on it? Ergo, did that postcard arrive in his possession at the beckoning of an eager fan, or was some dangerous hand of fate drawing them together while using such a warning as a mere lure? Some movies would simply skirt the issues in favor of keeping it all in the scope of grandiose jolts and moments of over-produced terror, but here is one that offers an intriguing balance of visual and intellectual implications. It certainly has scares, and there is a great sense of atmosphere adding paranoia to our observations, but Mike earns our sympathy by adding a lost context to the material, allowing us to think about it beyond the tingle of strange noises or threatening visuals.

The third act, unfortunately, toys with us in a frustration false climax that plays like a cruel practical joke. Though it starts off with an infuriating sense of displacement, the script fleshes it out into a sequence that offers no indication of deception, and when the moment transitions rather suddenly, there is cause to wonder why it is there at all. Did having three writers for this screenplay, perhaps, inspire some level of discord? The entire sequence is completely out of place, and derails the momentum. Furthermore, the director only confuses the issue with an ending* that comes at the expense of our loyalty, and in the final moments our sense of disquiet is matched only by our great frustration. On one hand you can’t blame him; Hafstrom’s experience in film (at least up to that point) was limited, and King’s premises often leave key details up to interpretation. But for the viewer who is well accustomed to this sort of story and is engrossed by the material that precedes it, those final 20 minutes are a conclusive misstep, and for some, that will be enough to negate whatever has come before.

*The ending in question belongs to the Director’s Cut, which is the most commonly available version in release; when it was in theaters, an alternate ending influenced by the studio was tacked on, which was actually a better one; less pessimistic and more redemptive, it also contained a moment of precious irony, which is severely lacking from the one you often see now.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 2007; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 104 Minutes

John Cusack: Mike Enslin
Samuel L. Jackson: Gerald Olin
Mary McCormack: Lily
Jasmine Jessica Anthony: Katie
Tony Shalhoub: Sam Farrell

Produced by Kelly Dennis, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Antonia Kalmacoff, Jake Myers, Richard Saperstein, Jeremy Steckler, Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein; Directed by Mikael Hafstrom; Written by Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; based on the short story by Stephen King

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