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STUDIO: Weinstein Company
RUNNING TIME: 104 Minutes/112 Minutes
• Audio Commentary with director Mikael Håfström and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski on director’s cut
• John Cusack on 1408
• Inside Room 1408
• The Secrets of 1408
• Deleted Scenes with optional commentary
“It’s a Stephen King story about an evil fucking hotel room!”
John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Tony Shalhoub, Len Cariou, Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Mike Enslin, the author version of Venkman from Ghostbusters, spends his days running from an unpleasant personal history and writing about the scariest places in America. But Enslin’s come up lacking in the ghost-finding department, and even he openly doubts their existence. Until…
You see where this is going, right? The skeptic gets learned a lesson about ghosts in the eponymous hotel room. Read on to see how!
I’m a huge Stephen King fan. I know, who cares, but I’ve always felt a strong affinity to his work. Maybe it’s ‘cause I grew up in the same town in Maine where he spends the non-winter months, maybe it’s because the man writes horror better than anybody else, I don’t know, but I do know I’ll read anything he writes.
His movies…slightly more of a mixed bag. For every Misery or Shawshank Redemption, you got four Golden Years or Dreamcatchers. It’s hard to get his shit right on-screen, and as a result, I didn’t have high hopes for 1408. I like Cusack and Jackson, but neither man has proven to be especially discriminating with their film choices (read: a dump truck full of money will buy them for any project); the previews telegraphed way too much of the action and seemed forced; and director Mikael Håfström’s previous work, Derailed, was craptastic on so many levels. Plus, the short story that inspired the flick (in Everything’s Eventual, which you can buy here) was good but not great, taking too long to get going and then ending with a weak-as-hell payoff.
Yet I really enjoyed this movie version of 1408. Maybe it was simply lowered expectations or the fact that I was watching it at two in the morning after a long day stuck inside, but this was an intense little ghost story that managed to be both entertaining and uncompromising in its scares and impact (in the director’s cut, at least. More on that later). The short story’s been fleshed out to its benefit, with richer characters and more scares, and that surprised me. Even the part in the trailers that had me actively gagging, the whole section on Enslin’s home life, takes up maybe five minutes of screentime and actually adds to the rest of the flick.
And Mikael Håfström deserves the credit for making this work. I think I like 1408 because there’s a classical feel to its setup and scares. This isn’t torture porn or a J-Horror rip-off, it’s more of an old-fashioned horror story, and Håfström’s direction gives the material a subtlety most modern horror films lack. He uses a widescreen framing possible to emphasize the negative space in the hotel room. When combined with some choice close-ups of Cusack’s character, Håfström’s able to suggest menace and unease even when nothing explicitly horrible is happening.
The first twenty minutes Enslin spends in 1408 are like a master-class in suspense; Håfström keeps delaying and delaying the abject shocks, which somehow unnerves us worse, building up our anticipation of seeing the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan, so that when…well, I don’t want to spoil it, but just know that when Håfström does send the ghosts a-flying, it’s about twenty times scarier than it might be otherwise. His handling of the ghosts works beautifully. In many ways, 1408 is as much a psychological thriller as it is a ghost story since the room plays off Enslin’s fears and issues to get at him. The ghosts take on symbolic reference, but Håfström only highlights that in a few examples—the rest of the time he presents the image quickly and without comment, making part of the fun (for us) to figure out how it applies to Enslin.
More than anything, the room’s tailoring of its shocks to Enslin works because it gives Cusack a lot to play with. Cusack’s phenomenal in the lead; it’s the best work he’s done since 2000’s High Fidelity. His performance is crucial to the flick—it’s a one-man show in many ways, and if that one guy sucks, then the movie does too. Cusack does not have that problem. He sells the hell out of his character arc (bitter skeptic turned frightened husk of a man) and makes the personal tragedy stuff register so much stronger than it might otherwise. His scenes with his daughter show an emotional range that I don’t think he’s really displayed in the past. And he convinces us he’s shit-scared, which, in turn, makes us shit-scared. The rest of the cast is good: Jackson plays a nicely underplayed variation on his suave motherfucker, and Shalhoub has a couple of funny scenes, but it’s Cusack’s show all the way.
About the only problems I had with the flick, and they were small, were a jump-scare at the end of the director’s cut that was effective but unlikely and a certain spoilerish section of the flick that could’a stood five minutes of tightening, especially to benefit repeat viewings. But these are small caveats in a genuinely scary and exciting ghost story.
Note: Watch the director’s cut on disc two. Don’t even bother with disc one. Up until the ending, the director’s cut changes are minor: some more blood here and there, a slightly extended scene or two. It’s the ending that makes this version of the flick. The theatrical cut ending is more faithful to the short story’s ending, which was the weakest part of the story. The director’s cut ending is a different, bleaker beast that’s better keeping in tone with the rest of the picture. The theatrical cut is a two and a half star flick—the director’s cut bumps that up a whole star rating.
The flick’s got a real slick, dark-burnished look that the DVD represents well. The sound’s a bit underwhelming, though, especially in the more aggressive moments of the flick. As for the box, it’s a creepy two-shot of Cusack and Jackson that far overstates Jackson’s presence in the flick (ten minutes, maybe). I’da preferred the original poster, an innocuous yet menacing shot of the bed and nightstand, but you can’t always get what you want.
Features-wise, this set is disappointing for a two-disc special edition. Disc one you got the theatrical cut (which you don’t need to watch) and two webisodes, John Cusack on 1408 and Inside Room 1408, that are only glorified previews. Disc two has the director’s cut with a decent commentary from Håfström and the writers and a few other, perfunctory extras. There are some uninteresting deleted scenes and The Secrets of 1408, which is too short at only 25 minutes and basically repeats most of the info in the commentary.
I really enjoyed 1408. It was an entertaining and legitimately scary ghost story with a fucking great lead performance. The DVD is more suspect. The picture’s good but the sound’s less stellar, and the extras are pretty slim for a pricey two-disc special edition. I have to recommend this version for the director’s cut version of the flick, but otherwise, it’s not worth it, value-wise. Let’s give the movie a solid 8.0 out of 10, and for the DVD set: