Sunday, June 24, 2007

Don't Go In That Room!

Most of my childhood was loving and sheltered. But there were moments of unexpected violence and terror. With that peculiar reasoning children use, I convinced myself if I could handle scary things, I'd be better prepared for those moments of terror. In systematic fashion, I set out to conquer as many scary things as possible. From the time I was six or seven, I insisted on getting on the most frightening amusement park rides Coney Island and Atlantic City had to offer. I never turned down a dare. And I saw every scary movie I could get myself into.

I think those early experiences hardwired my brain because I'm still drawn to horror movies today.

I'm not talking about the slasher films that are so popular among teens; I mean real horror movies.

This afternoon, while I was cleaning house, I heard an ad for 1408. On impulse, I checked my computer for movie listings, saw there was a show starting in ten minutes, picked up my car keys and wallet and left the house. I arrived at the theater as the credits were rolling.

The film is based on a Stephen King short story. For anyone familiar with Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, there are obvious parallels. A hard-drinking novelist suffering from depression ends up trapped in a haunted hotel built a century ago. But where The Shining takes place in remote Colorado during a blizzard, 1408 is set at 14th and Lexington in New York City during the heat of summer.

John Cusack is Mike Enslin, a middle-aged man who lost his faith in God when his young daughter Katie died of disease. The once talented novelist abandoned his grieving wife and his career to embark on a search for ghosts. His clear intent is to debunk the paranormal--and, by extension, the existence of an afterlife. Enslin travels from place to place, staying in supposedly haunted houses and hotels, looking for things that go bump in the night. He has written one book on haunted houses already and is looking for a final chapter in his "Ten Nights in Haunted Hotel Rooms."

When he receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York with the penned message "Don't enter Room 1408," Enslin is at first amused because the numbers add up to 13. After researching the Dolphin, he becomes convinced the old hotel will make a perfect finale for his next book. Fifty-six people have died in Room 1408 since the hotel opened.

Getting into Room 1408 is not a cakewalk. The Dolphin Manager Gerald Olin (in a small but great cameo by Samuel L. Jackson) refuses to let another guest into that "f***ing evil" room. He's had to clean up four bodies during his tenure as hotel manager and does not relish the prospect of seeing Enslin carried out feet first. Enslin refuses to back down, however, citing a civil rights law, and Olin finally hands him the old-fashioned brass key to the room (magnetic card keys don't seem to work on 1408).

Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom does an effective job of building the tension before Enslin even steps in the room. By the time the writer puts his bag down in Room 1408, my skin was tingling.

Cusack gives a great performance, especially since the movie rests largely on his shoulders. If you don't count the ghosties and ghoulies, he is alone on the screen for most of the film. While his performance as Mike Enslin is not as showy as Jack Nicholson's turn as Jack Torrance in The Shining, his character is much more likeable than Nicholson's over-the-top character. You want Enslin to regain his lost faith. You want him to survive his duel with 1408.

There are lots of small reminders that Stephen King wrote this story. His trademark technique of using ordinary items to invoke terror is everywhere. My favorite was the repeated use of The Carpenters' 1970 hit single "We've Only Just Begun" as the room mocks Enslin.

There were also the flashes of humor that are a King staple. Alternating creepiness with a laugh is a great technique--similar to offering sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses during a heavy meal.

Every paranormal trick in the deck of cards is played: ghosts prancing through the room, unexplained noises, walls that ooze, quick movements on the edge of the screen--you name it, they use it. The ninety-four minutes whizzed by.

The theater I attended was packed. I actually had to sit in the first few rows because all the other seats were taken. But this is not the typical summer slasher fare that teenagers seem to relish. Although the audience responded appropriately during the screening, I heard more than one boy complain that the movie wasn't scary enough after it ended. I blew the comments off as either disappointment at the lack of gore or testosterone posturing.

I liked the film. Ebert & Roeper gave it two thumbs up.

I'm also looking forward to Live Free or Die Hard this Wednesday. I know. I know. The two sequels were lame, and Bruce Willis is over-the-hill as an action hero. But I loved the first Die Hard movie. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to give #4 a try.


David Roth said...

Me too. You know that the Shining was a Stephen King book before it was Kubrick film yes?

In my vast reading and viewing experience, the combination of the King book and Kubrick film are the only Stephen King tandom I have never been able to finish. Neither one. They just plain creep me out too much to finish them.

As for Die Hard - I loved the first one, and the second was memorable for Bonnie Bedalia saying "John, why does this keep happening to us?" Number four should be good escapism. It already has a memorable line: "You just killed a helicopter with a cop car!" "I was outta bullets."

B.E. Sanderson said...

I'm not a huge fan of horror. When I was younger, I let people talk me into watching some really horrific movies, but I didn't enjoy them. (Hellraiser, Se7en, Freddy, Jason, etc.) and some okay horror movies (both versions of The Shining, Cujo, Carrie, Christine, etc.) The only King novels I've read are Carrie and The Stand. I'll probably avoid 1408. I admire King for his writing ability, but I'm not a scare-me kinda gal.

As for Die Hard, I didn't think the sequels were lame. #2 wasn't as good as #1, but I thought #3 was awesome. *shrug*

Maya Reynolds said...

David: Of course, I know The Shining was written by King. It's one of my favorite horror books. I was disappointed in Kubrick's treatment because I thought it took the focus off Danny and put it on Jack. Over the years, I've come to accept and appreciate the film treatment as a different story from the one I loved.

Maya Reynolds said...

Beth: Sorry. I didn't mean to insult the Die Hard sequels. They just couldn't compare to that first one for me. I've seen that film so many times that I can practically recite the dialogue.

David Roth said...


Sorry - I meant no insult. I figured that you probably did know. Many, however don't make the connection. They don't know, for example, that King's book is quantum leaps better, and that says a lot because the movie was very, very good.

They also don't know that Jackel, also with Bruce, was NOT based on the Frederick Forsythe book Day of the Jackel, but rather based - very very losely, I might add - on the movie that WAS based on the book, and which was, IMHP infinitely superior to the Willis/Geer remake.

Maya Reynolds said...

David: No problem.

I DIDN'T know that about "The Jackal." I thought it WAS a loose remake of "Day of the Jackal." I own both films, but never looked at the credits for "The Jackal."

"The Jackal" is the first time I can remember seeing Jack Black in a movie. His role as one of Bruce Willis' suppliers was a scene stealer. I can still see him yelling: "Oh yeah! Bring on the spall, baby."