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Movie Review: 1408

June 22, 2007

1408
John Cusack
Samuel L Jackson
Dir: Mikael Håfström

It sounds like a horror film written by Jerry Seinfeld. “Hey, you know those hotel rooms? Man, what’s up with those hotel rooms?” That, and a maudlin sub-plot involving a child who’s passed into the beyond, are about all there is to the new Stephen King adaptation 1408. Then there’s John Cusack, the eternal young rebel kicking and screaming into middle aged responsibility. As a one note joke, King’s oft repeated treatise on the fear of commonplace inanimate objects being given a malevolent soul, the film could have been a dreadful bore. However, Cusack’s presence morphs the drudgery into an interesting look at a man forced to modify his outlook on life.

Cusack plays Mike Enslin, author of a series of cynical non-fiction books that investigate and debunk ghost stories. He was at some point, a “serious” author, whose one failed literary novel gathers dust in used bookstores, much like his ghost hunter books gather dust in bargain bins. Enslin receives a lead on a possible haunted room in the Hotel Dolphin (a nod to Murakami Haruki’s Wild Sheep Chase). With the number of grisly deaths that took place in room 1408, it sounds like a good story, so Enslin decides to check it out. However, the hotel manager (a non-shouting role for Samuel L Jackson)warns him not go to in that mother fucking room in that mother fucking hotel (I made that part up), warning him that no one has lasted more than an hour without going bonkers. Cusack, being the lead White guy in a horror film, steadfastly refuses the warning. Madness ensues.

Cusack lets us know from the very beginning that this is less a Stephen King adaptation than a John Cusack film. When his character tosses his belongings on a hotel bed in the opening scene, a Chicago White Sox hat is one of the items. The “White Sox” on the hat is blacked out, a reference to Cusack’s role in John Sayles fantastic baseball movie Eight Men Out. In that film as in 1408, Cusack plays an everyman imbued with a healthy dose of cynicism and distrust of authority. It’s Enslin’s cynicism, rather than society’s mores, that is questioned here. Enslin is an atheist faced with the possibility of life after death. He doesn’t believe in the work he does, and so it’s suggested, doesn’t believe in himself.

It’s too bad that the film mixes its messages. Cusack’s character is given a dead daughter to mourn, suggesting he’s not chasing ghosts, but a specific one, hoping that someday he’ll be proven wrong. The ghost story where the protagonist is communicating with a dead child has become a staple of modern horror and should be avoided, especially when the psychological and philosophical territory 1408 opens up lies there unexplored.

Like too many of today’s horror, there aren’t many reasons to be scared. There are a few “Boo! Gotcha,” moments, however the overall tone of the film, especially in the first few minutes of Enslin’s adventure, seems comic. The director goes easy on the effects and gore, and wisely sits back and let’s Cusack do what he does best. It’s really up to Cusack to make the audience feel the tension in the situation, and that he does.

When we see Enslin before the fireworks begin, he’s surfing, or dressed in a ska-style porkpie hat and dark shades. It’s an outfit that Cusack’s probably felt at home in over the years, him being the cat who doesn’t understand why Fishbone wasn’t the biggest band ever. While the film overturns Enslin’s cynicism about ghosts and God, Cusack’s rebellious stance remains. It’s fitting that a Clash fan and George Bush hater would wield a Molotov cocktail as a solution to his problem. Still, in a somewhat conventional genre film like this one, what is Cusack rebelling against?

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