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Sunday, July 22, 2007

All the lonely hotels stand like monuments to fear: 1408

So I don't sit at home pining for Halifax all day or anything. We go out, we do stuff. Last night "stuff" involved a trip to Fry's, some top notch Mexican food, and
an investigation of whether Stephen King has ever ended a story successfully.

I'd like the look of 1408 for a while: John Cusack? Gooood! Samuel L. Jackson? Goood! Non–torture porn horror movie? Goooooood! And despite the gratuitous slam on Mr. King's struggles above, I have spent many enjoyable hours having him scare the bejeezus out of me.

The timing for the start of the movie was not great. We were thus subjected to the macking of the teenage couple next to us, which was interspersed with her whiny inquiries into why he'd taken a Koren class for HER (HER clearly being a previous girlfriend), when he hadn't bothered to learn her (her being one of the mackees) language. I also learned that I really would rather be forced to sit through I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry than a Harry Potter movie.

M and I agree that 1408, although far from a perfect movie, is a really damned good one. It's a simple enough story that the events are believable and don't distract the audience by making them ask, "Now why the hell would he be doing that?" It has a character that one empathizes with and roots for, although he's not wholly likable or always sympathetic. And most important, it's intensely scare in the grand old spine-tingling, suspenseful tradition, rather than relying on excessive gore or extreme violence.

Oddly enough, having seen the trailer a number of times acted like "Cliff's Notes" to the movie (I normally object to the spoiler-riffic nature of trailers), because one of the ways in which the movie falls down on the job is in letting us really know who Mike Enslin (Cusack) is and why he does what he does. From the trailers, we at least have some idea that he didn't just start out as the walking stereotype of a drunken, one-hit-wonder writer. Rather, trailer watchers know that the loss of his young daughter has derailed him fairly seriously.

Even with the helpful trailer clues, Cusack has his work cut out for him making Enslin both sympathetic and comprehensible to the audience. In the opening scene, he's driving through a dark back road on the dark and stormy night required by law. After some backtracking, he arrives at an inn and is pretty much a dick to the friendly, if somewhat overeager and consequently inconsiderate, couple who run the inn. We see a very small amount of his night drinking and listening for ghosts before we see him crankily driving away, dooming the inn to "5 skulls on the shiver scale."

Later, at a depressingly poorly attended book signing, we see a few more snippets of him using "tools of the trade" to gauge supernatural residue and what have you, but it's not exactly clear at whom 10 Haunted books are aimed or what his purpose in writing them is. As M said, the scenes with Olin (Jackson), the manager of THE hotel, there is a strong implication that Enslin is pissy and jaded because he's uncovered numerous not-particularly-sophisticated attempts at deliberate hoaxing, but that's not what we've seen. Furthermore, the trailer gives the strong impression that his daughter's death led him into research on the supernatural in the hopes of discovering something beyond life, but there's virtually no follow-through on that score at all.

Beyond waffling on what Enslin's attitude and motives are, the movie is not on especially firm territory when it explores its own orientation toward the supernatural. There's a scene just about in the middle of the movie when Enslin opens the minibar in his fridge and encounters mini-Samuel L. Jackson. It's a well-shot, well-acted, very Lynchian scene, but the content is baffling. In it, mini-Olin chides Enslin for raining on the metaphysical parade of his readers, taking away their hope of an afterlife. This is in keeping with some flashbacks to the time after his daughter's death when he was prone to beating up himself and his wife (metaphorically) over the fact that they assured her that she was going to Heaven or a reasonable facsimile thereof and that all her friends and God would be there. But it seems very out of step with the research and book-signing scenes, which don't really indicate that he's writing sneering debunkings of these supposedly haunted locales.

But if the movie fails on the grand philosophical score, it succeeds in exploring the many faces of fear: abject, senseless personal terror; big-time phobias; the fear that bleeds into despair and hopelessness; the banal stresses of everyday life. The conceit, of course, is The Unbeliever and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Hour in the haunted room.

Mike Enslin did not so much relocate to the West Coast as he did flee as far away as he could from anything that would remind him of his daughter's death. But he decides to make an exception to his "No more New York, EVER" rule when he gets a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel that says; "Don't Stay in 1408." He notes that 1 + 4 + 8 = 13 and remarks, "Cute," but he's intrigued enough to try to book the room. He is not explicitly told that he can't stay in the room, the room just happens to be unavailable for any date he mentions.

He gets his publisher's lawyer on the issue and learns that under antidiscrimination laws, they cannot refuse to let him stay in the room unless it is already occupied. When he arrives Cheryl Hines informs him that he'd better be "Packing His Trunk", the desk clerk alerts management. Enslin is oh-so-very-politely ushered into Olin's office for some very expensive cognac and gentle persuasion from the Bad Ass Motherfucker himself. He takes the cognac, but still insists on staying in the room, even after Olin offers him free access to the gory crime photos and other details of the suicides, maimings, and natural deaths that have occurred there. On their way up to the room, Enslin asks what the "story" is on the room: Who died there? Who killed whom? What gypsy had a bug crawl up her ass and die there? Olin (whom we've just seen speaking French to some other staff member in an awkward I ASSURE YOU HE'S VERY CULTURED EVEN THOUGH HE'S BLACK moment) leans in and Jackson gets his contractually obligated f-bomb in: "It's an evil fucking room." 'Nuff said.

And truly the room itself is unremarkable, save for the fact that it is (a) supposed to be a hotel room in New York and yet (b) it is larger than my first apartment. Still, it's unnerving in an effective way. As Enslin talks into his recorder, he notes that all hotel rooms have something creepy about them, but this one especially so: The sightlines are bad; there are too many corners, too many oddly placed pieces of furniture, too many closets, curtains, and . . . well hiding places for things that want to eat your face, ok? The paintings are grim and depressing, but no more so than typical hotel room paintings. The room is uncomfortably hot (although this is fixed without incident, just a moment, a detail). The sounds from other rooms seem to occur not quite randomly, managing to be startling just as you start to relax.

The tension builds fairly slowly with a few well chosen scream moments: The clock radio blares on (revealing, unsurprisingly, that the soundtrack to hell is provided by the Carpenters) as it has in a dozen other movies, but it's accompanied by the bed being turned down, chocolates on the pillow, and the toilet paper having been refolded to its hotel-required point. They're funny little hotel-specific adjuncts to a tried and true horror device, but the giggle they evoke is just slightly hysterical.

And then the window slams down on Enslin's hand, cutting it badly. Again, any fan of horror movies is necessarily a connoisseur of slamming, digit-maiming windows, but 1408 smashes your fingers with a difference. Enslin is really in pain. He's bleeding, and when he goes for the bathroom sink to rinse the injury, steam explodes from the faucets, driving him back to the shower curtains, which, from then on, bear bloody, straggling hand prints.

And Enslin does something no character in the history of horror movies has ever done: He gives up when it makes sense to do so. He picks up the phone to check out and is caught in an endless loop of hotel services. He goes for the door himself, smearing yet more blood, and finds that it won't open. He tries to unlock the door from the inside with his key. It breaks off and the shaft is pulled through from the other side. When he climbs out on to the window ledge, making for the room next door, the outer wall is transformed into a brick expanse in which his two windows are the only openings. As he makes it back in to recheck the floor layout, he realizes that it is blacked out except for the island that is 1408 (with, of course, the helpful red "YOU ARE HERE" dot).

And . . . well, I won't belabor the review with a point-for-point synopsis, but it's full of clever plays on general horror tropes and it very successfully mines its own specific setting. There's real claustrophobia, paranoia, and despair. Even the device of the clock radio counting down from 60 (no one's ever lasted more than an hour, of course), which could have been so very done works, not just because it resets and you realize that there's no magic dawn coming to save him, but because it forces a mental inventory of the fears to which Enslin (and the audience through him) has just been subjected: Claw-hammer-wielding maniacs, failure at parenthood, failure of one's own parents in their old age, old age itself, disease, financial ruin, parking tickets . . . just everything . . . ending with his daughter dying in his arms.

As for the eternal question "Can Stephen King successfully end a story," well, I don't know, as I haven't read the short story. The real resolution for Enslin in the movie is pretty satisfying: It's redemptive without requiring total sacrifice, but it's also not a saccharine happy ending (and real horror fans hate those). Throughout the movie, it's entirely possible that Enslin is hallucinating the whole thing and several shots establish that the camera is not seeing what he does. Although I favor at least some resolution over hedging, I thought the epilogue was a touch on the ZOMG IT REALLY HAPPENED melodramatic side.

But with its relatively minor flaws (and believe me, even though I liked Secret Window, I am aware that its flaws weren't minor) it's quite a watchable movie and maybe the best Stephen King adaptation I've seen.

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