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DVD Review: 1408

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I didn’t go see 1408 when it was in the theaters. I intended to. Life kept me away and it was gone. So I was really looking forward to it when it came out on DVD. And I ended up putting off watching it immediately.

I think part of the reason was that I really wanted to like it. Stephen King, when he’s on (and I think he will be in the upcoming Duma Key), can’t be beaten in the creep-factor. And John Cusack is just one of those actors that I can watch no matter what he’s in (though my personal fave is Gross Pointe Blank).

Having them together was just a little bit of heaven. In a hellish, possessed hotel room sort of way. With Samuel L. Jackson playing a hotel manager who might not exactly be on the side of the angels.

Happily, I enjoyed the movie, got my quota of scary moments and John Cusack intensity/one-liner presentations.

There’s nothing really new here. King has pulled off bigger scare fests that still manage to touch the heart. And Cusack has certainly performed in roles with more and deeper range. But they definitely landed in fair territory (to use a baseball euphemism that King will appreciate) with this one. You get more runs through base hits than with home runs. People just remember the home runs more.

Cusack, likeable as always with a touch of the sardonic and sarcastic, portrays Mike Enslin, a writer of true horror who doesn’t believe in the paranormal. Despite his lack of beliefs, his books have done well enough to give him a decent life. However, he’s never gotten over losing his young daughter, Katie, to a terminal illness or his own loss of faith. He puts God and ghosts on the same page and filed them all in the circular bin.

Until he reaches Room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel in New York City. A mysterious postcard arrives and sets Enslin on the trail of the long line of deaths associated with the hotel room. Even though he doesn’t want to be, Enslin is captivated by the idea of the room. He decides he needs to stay there for the night for the final chapter in his latest book.

The atmospheric build-up leading to Enslin’s checking in at the Dolphin is so much a part of this story. We can see that he’s driven and missing a piece of himself, but we don’t know what’s driving him or what he’s missing. Then, as he researches all the deaths, I got hooked on the story.

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. I love digging into the background of the coming tale, trying to guess what the writer is going to attempt to do to me during my stay. I hadn’t read King’s short story in the collection Everything’s Eventual, or if I had, it forgot it. The screenwriter’s outdid themselves on this one. An overview of the short story shows that much of what they created for the movie wasn’t in the short story, but the whole atmosphere was. That’s what King excels at when he’s got his A-game.

After Cusack checks into the room, during the last hour of the film or so, 1408 almost becomes a one-man play. Cusack carried the whole load of the movie on his shoulders and totally walked through it like he was out for a Sunday stroll. Cusack nailed every emotion, his own as well as the ones he was trying to elicit from the audience. He played me like a harp, and I’ve seen enough horror films and read enough Stephen King to stay one step ahead. And I did, but the movie kept me constantly on the move to earn my one step.

The special effects are awesome, but they only work so well because of Cusack’s performance and the pacing by the director, Mikael Hafstrom. If the human element and the timing hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have mattered how good the special effects were. Audiences believe in character and atmosphere before they believe in cinematics.

As it turned out, because of the holidays, I ended up watching the movie one night, then again the next. It held me captivated both nights, just watching Cusack go through his paces again as I picked up small nuances of the visual cues that I’d missed or neglected to pay as much attention to because I was pumping adrenaline the first time.

The only thing I can fault the movie for was not explaining why Room 1408 was haunted. There’s enough of a history there that I bought into the overall story, but usually movies and tales like these always nail down the “origin” story as well. This one didn’t and I was irritated enough to mention it. Still, no matter what explanation had been provided, I might have discounted the threat if I’d known what the horror was actually caused by.

If you’re a horror fan, there’s a lot to like about 1408. And if you want to sit down with the older kids on family night for a little chill and shiver, this movie is definitely one you can do that with because there’s no obscenely bad language and the death scenes didn’t push it past a PG-13 rating. Good, scary fun.

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