Two of 2007s most promising genre features take their cues from the short form of the Crimson King. The Mist, directed by the proven Frank Darabont, and 1408, helmed by the relatively new Mikael Håfström. The former won’t see the light of day until November, but now that the latter has broached some 2,678 screens we can get a decent glimpse as to how good studios are making on their promises. I am glad to say things are looking up.
The short form of 1408, existing first as an audio book read by Stephen King himself and later as part of a print collection, has one focus and one focus alone: Skeptic supernatural surveyor Mike Enslin, against the advisement of Dolphin Hotel owner Olin, is hell bent on spending a night in the death-plagued titular room. The story is full of the character nuance any fan of King’s work is oh-so familiar with, but past that the piece has little to no plot. Going into the film, the obvious question is can one turn a relatively plot-less story that takes 45 minutes to read into a 94 minute film without unnecessary bloating?
Save for a mild regret in its last act, the answer is a definitive yes, yes they can. In fact, the elements introduced to fill the obligatory run time end up being more Stephen King than the original King story, the end result being a genuine summer surprise that I think – or rather, hope – will have legs at the box office even amid 200 million dollar franchise films.
John Cusack sells the burnt out Mike Enslin with ease, giving one of his greatest performances to date in this fairly one-man show. He is all caustic charm when the film plays up the comedic angles and all terror when the room takes his sanity and throws it cinematically out the window. Casting of Sam Jackson as Olin was a brilliant move. His role is brief but pivotal and Jackson brings a presence to the character I’m doubtful he would have had otherwise. The build-up between the two just prior to Enslin entering the room – arguably the most crucial scene in the entire story – is pulled off wonderfully. An extra note of happy: the one use of ‘fuck’ PG-13 movies are allowed to pull off is delivered by Jackson, the master of the word, to obvious audience satisfaction.
What happens in the room, none of which I’ll spoil, is full of heart pounds and muscle spasms; all the trappings of a truly great date movie. I’d wager that not a single other film this summer will have theater goers so consistently shifting positions in their seats. Though the thrills don’t have enough permanence to keep any hardened goer awake at night, they do perfectly well while watching.
Thankfully, the integration of Enslin’s obviously rocky past as a father/husband/writer isn’t as cheesy as the trailers make it out to be. Instead of functioning as an introduction to the character, as I assumed it would, that thread is used to retroactively bring even more heart to the poor guy. If I didn’t have the foresight of knowing the material, I’d say those aspects of the story were King creations as they fit in uniformly with his style.
I love that Håfström and co. make no attempt to completely studio-ize the evil of the room. No set of rules established, no game that Enslin has to figure out to survive. The room is psychotic, end of discussion. Elements that would lead to predictability are, gracefully, excised from the majority of the 94 minutes, leading to long stretches of uninterrupted, entertaining insanity. The only fault being an obvious bit of misdirection leading up to the film’s resolution. Granted, if a viewer doesn’t know the story prior, it won’t be nearly as glaring, but even still I think it detracts from more than it contributes to the mystery of it all.
That penultimate bit of editing aside, the whole production pretty much nails it. The cast is great, the handling of the room and the terror it bestows perfectly balanced with classic King wit. It is the perfect summer movie for summer audiences, especially if you’re the kind of teenager I was. I can certainly imagine walking to the theater more than once to catch something as fun as 1408. As an adult, relatively speaking, I no longer have the open ended months of sunshine to spend all kinds of free time at a theater, so I’ll confess 1408 doesn’t have enough pull to drag me back, but it is shinning PG-13 horror definitely worth at least a singular big screen visit.
And if you have a date, rest assured all the best kinds of squirming will be had.
Side note: I love the aesthetics of the "ghosts" (if that is what you want to call them) of the room, as seen above. Anyone remember the 7th Guest? Very reminiscent and good God does it make me crave a film adaptation of that fucking scary game.