Monday, October 3, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 1: "1408" by David Pretty

Happy Halloween Month, Horror Fanatics!

I try not to watch very many fright flicks during the year because I usually completely spaz out on them during Halloween month.  So, now that we've made it to to October, I'm gonna try and review as many horror titles as I can before my poor brain explodes a la Scanners.  

Unfortunately, I'm not coming out of the gate very strong with my first choice. 

Stephen King sure does find hotels creepy, but then again, so do I.  After all, The Shining was a genuine  masterpiece of horror fiction (and subsequently, horror cinema), so I really can't slight him for wanting to go back to the well again.  This time the action of the story is confined to a single, creepy room in a Manhattan high rise.  Surely the setting alone should result in even greater heights of claustrophobia and fear?  Right?  Right!?  


Pity, since the trailer, (and the film's initial set-up) is actually quite promising:

John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a writer who's daughter has recently passed away after a lingering illness.  After his relationship with his wife founders under the strain, Mike drifts away from a respectable career as a novelist and begins writing pulpy, disposable books about supposedly haunted vacation spots.  Every one of his investigations guarantees paranormal peril, but every time Mike stays overnight the experience is a bust.  Indeed, it's obvious that the jaded writer really wants to witness some kind of supernatural phenomenon first hand, if only to prove that his daughter has a chance to be at rest in a better place.

He soon receives a mysterious invitation to stay at the Dolphin Hotel, a very old but very troubled building which is home to the titular spooky room.  When the hotel manager, Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), tells him that over fifty people have perished in the cursed suite and that no guest has survived in there for longer then an hour, Mike's curiosity is officially piqued.  Could Room 1408 really be the place to knock the spectral chip off of his shoulder? 

Naturally, when Mike first gets in there, everything seems disappointingly mundane and it looks as if he's been set up for another crushing disappointment.  But then increasingly weird and nasty things begin to happen.  The clock radio switches on, blasting "It's Only Just begun" by the Carpenters.  As if this isn't horrifying enough, the digital display begins to count down sixty minutes, which seems to be referencing Olin's earlier claim that no one lasts longer than an hour in Room 1408.

Unfortunately, this also so happen to be where the film collapsed and ceased to be even vaguely frightening to me.  When Mike gets his hand slammed in a window, is subsequently burned by boiling water in the bathroom sink and then breaks the knob off the door as he tries to escape, the movie instantly veered from potentially creepy to a Buster Keaton comedy.  Aside from all the slap-sticky "peril", eventually we're treated to a couple of spectral apparitions.  Unfortunately, they're rendered so poorly that they're about as scary as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Return of the Jedi.   

A lot of this evil room's "menace" is served up by its physical manifestations, but, frankly, this was boring in the dreadful 1999 remake of The Haunting and it's just as boring here.  The hotel's neighboring windows vanish, preventing escape via the ledge.  The room suddenly drops into a deep freeze.  The ceiling splits apart and gouts of water flood in.  The walls become blacked as if by fire.   OoooOoooOoo!!!  Big fat, hairy deal.

Worst off all, two-thirds of the way through the film any sustained tension generated thus far is jettisoned when Mike suddenly pops back to sunny California.  Now, we know that there's just no way he could possibly have gotten back there and since these things can't be happening in the context of the hotel's reality, then we have to chalk it up to an hallucination.  And if it's an hallucination it's not "real".  And if it's not real, well, face it folks, it just ain't scary.

John Cusack does a serviceable job, but frankly, I think he's a bit miscast here.  The role really needed someone a lot crustier, someone considerably more world-weary.  Frankly, I just can't take Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything... slowly going nuts in a hotel room very seriously.  When Mike flips out and starts attacking the inside of a bar-fridge, it's unintentionally funny.  I just started chuckling to myself.

And although I'd gladly watch Samuel L. Jackson read transcripts from C-Span for two hours, I think he's slightly out of place in this story as well.  He does a fair job building tension and atmosphere with his dire warnings to Mike, but I can't help but speculate on how much creepier this could have been if a Jeremy Irons, Anthony Hopkins or Christopher Walken had delivered these same lines.  Indeed, Samuel might be a Bad Mother-Fucker, but eerie he ain't.

The film does have a few cool moments.  Swedish director Mikael Håfström does a fair job building suspense and anticipation cinema-verite style before we actually enter the room.  There are a few nice jump-scares courtesy of a knife-wielding lunatic.  Mike's harrowing misadventure through the steam vent is claustrophobic and tense.  But the most unsettling moment comes when Cusack's character is re-united with his daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony).  Watching him lose her again, and in such a disturbing manner, is actually pretty unnerving.        

It's not a horrible film, but when you consider that there's more "crap yer pants" terror packed in the "Room 237" sequence in Kubrick's version of The Shining, I'm afraid that 1408 is a comfy, relaxing stay in a well-appointed penthouse suite in comparison.

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