1408

Stephen King films are always a gamble. By the time Lawnmower Man, a fun little story about a Pan character who eats what he mows, hit the big screen all that was left was the title. But Stand by Me, Rob Reiner's interpretation of a novella called The Body was brilliant and I think made Mr. Reiner's career. On the other hand Maximum Overdrive, Children of the Corn, and even Christine weren't worth the price of admission. These days when I hear about a new Stephen King film I think I'll wait and see it on cable. But when I got an email from the man himself (or his website which seems to have a life of its own) telling me about the latest release and that it starred both John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson I knew I was going to have to see it in the theaters. The verdict? Quite simply, 1408 is the most frightening movie I've ever seen.

Seriously, I cannot remember another movie that raised my anxiety level to such an extreme. My dentist is going to kill me because I had a bottle of water with me and I chewed the top off in my nervousness. About halfway into the film I started thinking, okay, that's more than any person should have to stand. About fifteen minutes later I asked my movie going partner if he wanted to leave but he was too busy biting his nails to answer. I've never voluntarily left a film because the content was too scary for me although twice I had to take various baby sisters out of theaters because they were scared, once for the demon at the end of Fantasia and once for the original version of the Poseidon Adventure. I freely admit I cover my eyes a lot during certain types of films but this one made me think the lobby was the safest place to be.

1408 is based on a short story from Stephen King's collection Everything's Eventual. It's about a writer called Mike Enslin (played by John Cusack) who claims to not believe in anything but himself. He makes a living writing books with names like 10 Haunted Graveyards and says he would give anything to see a ghost. After a near drowning he gets an anonymous postcard sent from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City with a note telling him not to go into room 1408. Apparently never having heard that curiosity killed the cat, he immediately tries to book the room. When he's told the room is unavailable, not just now but also this weekend, next week, next summer, etc., he throws a little legal weight at the hotel and is reluctantly allowed to reserve a room.

When he arrives manager Mr. Olin (Sam Jackson) asks him not to stay in the room, explaining that he doesn't really care about the writer, he's asking for purely for selfish reasons; it's a real pain to clean up the dead guests, who incidentally never last longer than an hour. Of course Mike is even more intrigued and insists he's going to stay. What ensues is your classic haunted house story, albeit confined to essentially just one room. Just like in Dark Water, there is a strong psychological element, leaving you wondering if the horror is coming from within or without. And as in Dark Water there's plenty of bad water in this film oozing, splashing and pouring where you want it the least. In fact if I have a real complaint about 1408, and I really don't, it would be that it reminded me of several other stories and films. There were several bits that reminded me of previous Stephen King stories - remember the one about the man who has to walk around the ledge on the top of the tall building? - but in the end that's a part of this film's strength. These familiar elements don't bore, instead they each bring their own burden of tension, adding to an already terrific amount, until you don't know who is going to crack first, poor Mike or you, the viewer.

So what was it that makes 1408 such a mass of tension? Well, really just about everything that goes into a good horror film. The casting is superb, both John Cusack and Sam Jackson are amazing and never put a foot wrong. They make the film, especially John Cusack who, for all that he plays an essentially unlikable character, can break your heart with one twitch of his lip. Special kudos to Isiah Whitlock, Jr. of The Wire as the engineer. He adds quite a lot of atmosphere for having such a tiny part. The music is excellent, doing all the stuff that horror music is supposed to do, in other words sound more and more ominous until you want to scream just to release some tension. There's a particularly good use of a pop song that I'm pretty sure you'll never be able to hear again without getting the shivers.

The cinematography is beautifully done with all kinds of odd shots that should be perfectly benign but somehow come off as ultra creepy. There are lots of shots of people reaching into small spaces, tiny refrigerators, post office boxes, cubbyholes, etc. and many of these are shot from both angles so you see the character reaching from the outside and you also see as though you were in the space yourself. It works really well. The special effects are very nice and mostly discreet. Mostly you just get a sense of wrongness without being aware of what is wrong or why.

But most of all its John Cusack who makes this film what it is. In front of your very eyes he goes from being a selfish soulless cynic to a damaged father whose finally facing the terror and pain he's hidden away. Terrifying and tender are funny words to put together but they fit in this case.

One last thing - they say this film is one hour 34 minutes long. We went to the 10:35 showing and came out at 12:47. Given the elasticity of time in the film that was quite creepy.

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Megan Cory who is visiting Japan for the first time. She writes to say, "I spent many days roaming the streets of Tokyo, Japan. I saw many strange things, but there were two things I never saw in the streets, subways or parks of Tokyo: trash and a trashcan. It was a very clean city without a can, bag or cup in sight. But what made it so fascinating was that there were no trashcans. Anywhere. I was carrying around a grocery bag of trash for three hours, if not more, trying to spot a trash can on the way. It wasn't until we got to the hotel that there was a small trash can where I was able to throw my trash away. Is everyone in Japan carrying around trash until they get home? In the US, there are trash cans everywhere, even in places where there would be little trash. The government has made it so easy for people to throw their trash away so they don't have to carry it around and yet there is trash everywhere. People close to trash cans throw trash on the ground because they don't want to walk three steps and yet the Japanese can carry around their trash all day until they get home to throw it away. It's true they use a lot of reusable containers, but they have to get trash at some point. The Japanese either have more respect for their environment or a very quick and thorough robotic trash pick up system." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.