Thursday, July 3, 2014
Movies based on Stephen King’s novels or short stories tend to be hit or miss for me. I didn’t think 1408 was a waste of time, but it did drag in places, and unlike Misery, it wasn’t the kind of film that’s likely to stay in my memory for a long time afterwards.
The premise is simple: an author called Mike Enslin goes around staying in various haunted-house locations to expose them as shams. No such things as ghosts. It’s later revealed he’s an atheist whose only child has died. Just once, I’d like to see or read about a happy, well-adjusted atheist. I live in hope, unlike our hero.
Anyway, Mike gets an anonymous postcard from the Dolphin Hotel, warning him not to stay in 1408. Naturally, he high-tails it there, but the manager warns him not to go in. Mike holds his hand out for the key, opens the door and says, “This is it? It’s just a room.”
One thing I liked right away was that there were no attempts to “dress up” the paranormal element. No ancient Indian burial ground or satanic cult is responsible for what happens: 1408 is simply an evil room which causes people to commit suicide, and no one has lasted more than an hour.
At first, it all seems mundane. But then things start happening: the clock-radio starts up on its own, then resets the time to 60:00 and begins the countdown. When Mike tries to open the door, the key breaks off in the lock.
The film has a ton of moments intended to make viewers jump, and I jumped. But those aren’t what I feel is real horror. Real horror is something that keeps me awake at night thinking about it. There’s a chill factor, as opposed to a scare factor, and the film only had two of those really disturbing moments. They were great, but they couldn’t make up for the rest.
The first such scene is when Mike, trying to summon help from the window, sees a man in the building opposite. This man’s window is directly across, and when Mike waves his arms frantically, the man sees him and comes to the window. He waves back. Mike mimics “call the police”, and the man copies his actions. Mike’s desperation gives way to bewilderment as the man reflects his every move.
That really was creepy.
But then it gets better. A figure steps up behind the man and hits him with a hammer. Mike spins around, only to find the same figure attacking him. It’s an illusion, but an effective one.
Then Mike climbs out the window and inches his way along the ledge to the window of the next room. I was convinced he’d reach the open window and find himself right back in 1408. Still, it was suspenseful watching him move along the ledge, limbs spread for balance, counting off the steps. Then he looks sideways to see how much further he has to go—and there are no other windows. None at all. The camera pulls back to show a sheer brick wall.
I loved those two tricks. Unfortunately, everything else the room did was kind of—not predictable, exactly, but without significance. It didn’t matter if the room was splitting open or crashing in, because I knew it wasn’t going to destroy itself. And the room also makes it clear that Mike has to kill himself.
“…all guests of this hotel enjoy free will, Mr. Enslin. You can choose to relive this hour over and over, or you can take advantage of our express checkout system.”
On cue, a noose drops from the ceiling. Yet what the room really inflicts on him is terror and despair. That’s bad, granted, but no body parts are being cut off, nor is anyone else in jeopardy. Besides, if you know that everything you see is being caused by an evil room, then you’re not likely to wonder if you’re losing your mind.
In the end, Mike destroys the room with a bottle of brandy he turns into a Molotov cocktail. The room is perhaps aware that the film had to end, so it burns up. There’s a final attempt to wring a little more scare from the story by having Mike hear his daughter’s voice on his tape recorder, but it just didn’t work. As far as hotels go, the Overlook from The Shining is far more disturbing.