Monday, Dec. 24, 2007

1408 x Two

By David Luhrssen
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For Stephen King, the demons driving and gnawing at writers in their solitary introspection are as terrifying as any infernal monster. The tormented writer coming unglued has been a familiar feature in King�s fiction, most famously the thwarted novelist-turned-ax-murderer in The Shining.

The movie 1408, released on DVD with a better ending than the one seen in theaters, is also based on a story about a troubled author in a spooky hotel. Only this time the antique evil is confined to a single suite, Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel. Unlike The Shining's Overlook, the Dolphin isn't isolated by climate and nature. It's a gilded remnant of old New York in the fast-beating heart of Manhattan.

The film's tormented writer, Michael Enslin, is a cynical sellout who averted his gaze from painful introspection after one good novel and set his sight instead on easy hackwork. To his dismay, he discovers that an unresolved past has a way of intruding on one's field of vision. In a popular series of books, including Ten Haunted Graveyards and Ten Haunted Lighthouses, Enslin titillates readers with the supernatural while endeavoring to debunk ghost stories as ploys by tourist-starved, off-highway towns and businesses. Enslin is like the pornographer that finds sex distasteful.

He is intrigued by rumors surrounding the Dolphin's Room 1408 and the hotel management's refusal to rent the suite. A little research turns up dozens of suicides over the century among the room's guests. Enslin is determined to be the first person to spend the night in the room in more than a decade. John Cusack is well cast, his lips curdled in a slight smirk and his face otherwise the bland if flustered mask of a professional hurrying through a meaningless life. His show of affability is part of his professionalism, but his affability is thin, dissolving easily into impatience. He doesn't like anyone because he doesn't care for himself. Confronting him is the Dolphin's urbane manager, Olin, played by Samuel L. Jackson with a smile Sphinx-like in its resolute mystery and a voice rich and dark as the best chocolate. None of Olin's warnings will deter our doomed protagonist. Enslin is a man who claims to believe in nothing but the sad, disappointed writer staring back at him from the mirror.

It spoils no surprises to reveal that strange things begin to transpire in Room 1408 before Enslin can unpack his overnight bag. Windows slam shut, specters leap from the ledge, the television shows home videos from Enslin's past and, most horrifying of all, the clock radio plays only the Carpenters' �We've Only Just Begun.�

The banality of evil in modern life, amplified by that maddening tune broadcast from some hellish oldies station, is the persistent subtext in most of King's work. He has made himself the world's most recognized horror author for his ability to bring the Gothic into contemporary places familiar to his readers, including dreary subdivisions, tacky shopping malls and depressed trailer parks. King delights in exploring the cracks in the brittle facade of everyday reality. 1408 is neither a classic tale nor a classic film, but delivers its chills in an enjoyable genre setting. The movie lapses into poorly visualized, computer-generated overkill, yet Cusack's performance raises 1408 by a few notches.

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