Monday, December 17, 2007


Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack
Director: Mikael Håfström
Runtime: 104 min (Theatrical Release) / 112 min (Director's Cut)
Rating: ****1/2
Genre: Horror, Drama

Let me get this out real straight and real loud. I’m not exactly the biggest fan of the horror genre in its present state (for reasons click here). And 1408, to my utter disbelief, is a truly scary horror picture. Probably the best horror picture in over a decade. Of course, there’ve only been a handful of them.
During the pre-production of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick once called up Stephen King, at 3 a.m., and asked him - "Aren't ghost stories really just an affirmation of an afterlife?" King’s response tended towards the negative. The conversation continued, and during a point Kubrick bluntly asked King if he believed in God. King thought a minute and said – “Yeah, I think so." Kubrick replied, "No, I don't think there is a God," and hung up. (Courtesy: Eric Norden's interview of Stephen King, Playboy, June 1983) I like King’s novel a lot, and it has been my partner for a good part of my life. And I think Kubrick’s version of the story, keeping only the vague remains of supernatural, is more unsettling. The film, much like Kubrick, doesn’t believe in the existence of God but does believe in something waiting to be explained.
1408, another addition to the vast and formidable body of Stephen King’s adapted works, stands as the film that is quite perfectly the anti-Shining. By Shining I mean the Kubrick’s version. It isn’t confused, in any which way, where its sensibilities lie. It firmly believes in the supernatural and the existence of hell, the portrayal inspired from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Think of Mike Enslin, played quite brilliantly by John Cusack, as an extension of Kubrick in that he doesn’t believe in supernatural so much so that he scoffs at the mere mention of the afterlife. He isn’t the armchair type either for he scouts reputed haunted places, visits them, and then debunks their reputation through his bestsellers giving their boo-score on a shiver-scale. And then, he gets this anonymous postcard warning him not to visit room no. 1408 of the Dolphin hotel down east in New York City. More than anything else this is a challenge to his beliefs and his ego. I’m not sure debunkers and skeptics can ever be humble about their opinion. It is considerably easier to convince people of faith otherwise than to do it the other way around. Enslin walks into the hotel intoxicated in smugness and checks into room 1408 despite the desperate warnings of the hotel manager Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). And then, the epiphany.
1408 wastes absolutely no time in arranging its cards, and soon after that firmly places itself behind the player it vehemently supports. Not every member of the audience would realize the film’s conviction though, and the script is smart enough to exploit its protagonist’s lack of belief here to play a game or two with them. There has been a huge delay in the theatrical release of the film offshore during which the Director’s Cut of the film has already been released. There’re significant plot changes between the versions resulting in markedly different endings. But none so significant enough to alter the very conviction of the film, which essentially is filled with hope. Isn’t the presence of something supernatural, howsoever evil, an indication of the presence of something other than ourselves. And that, I feel, gives the feel-good factor a shot in the arm. It makes me remember what Arthur C. Clarke once said –
"Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we're not. In either case the idea is quite staggering."
As is the case with the other release this week, 1408 is essentially a one-man show. In the hands of a lesser actor this film would turn into those numerous other horror pictures I try so desperately to dodge, where the actors try their best to be what I call remote-control performers – press a button and you get a new standard emotion/expression (approved by the association of unimaginative actors) for the next quarter of an hour.
John Cusack is one of our best actors who is almost always convincing in whatever he does, be it the puppeteer in Being John Malkovich or the righteous deputy mayor in City Hall. Here, he achieves a level of performance towering in its scale for he neither has a whole island or a whole city for himself. This is just a room and there can be only so many scary elements, but Cusack elevates the material to levels of spirituality. Cusack, much like Tom Hanks, has the uncanny knack of getting us to like him and to cheer for him in whatever he does. Director Håfström effectively uses it to generate horror, and believe it or not, genuine emotion.
I can’t help but bring attention to the complete lack of violence and blood. When gory films reveling in their degeneracy are ruling the roost, piling sequel after sequel, it is so pleasant to witness a horror picture that is truly scary, yet doesn’t achieve that by grossing us out. We know half-way that the room wouldn’t physically harm Enslin yet we’re on the edge of our bums the whole way. Thanks to Swedish director Håfström, he gradually shifts the horror from an external force to one that manifests itself through the emotional and psychological upheavals. Even more pleasantly surprising is that all of it is achieved the good old-fashioned way. Disconcertingly enough, the epiphany begins with ‘We’ve just begun’ from The Carpenters played on a clock-radio. Dante would have loved it, I guess.


Sunil Kamat said...

jeez man , .. 4.5 stars? the movie maintains its suspense until he enters the room. after that i was craving for one horror moment. am a huge horror movie fan and in general a huge hollywood movie fan and this movie is no where near to 4.5. may be you are still young coz you seem to be scared with this. me waiting for one missed call. jan 4th. tring tring :) hope that scares me.
and yeah. you must try movies like HOSTEL. let me know how you feel abt that :)

man in the iron mask said...

Oh yeah, I'm young.
And yeah, I've tried Hostel.
I guess I would like to remain young than grow up into a mentally degenerate, bereft of all possible forms of intellect by watching another of those Hostel films.