Return of the King

A cold day in hell. Photo by David Appleby

As much as Stephen King's name used to be synonymous with quality horror, both in the literary world and when it came to big-screen adaptations—John Carpenter's Christine, Brian De Palma's Carrie, David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone—recent years have seen his stock fall substantially, to the point at which the viewer cringes for all the wrong reasons when any new King-based movie or miniseries is announced. We've been burned too many times by the hack work of King's apparent favorite collaborator, Mick Garris, who, while a nice guy in person and a helpful producer for up-and-comers in the genre, has an unfortunate tendency to amplify King's worst traits—the cloying sentimentality and nostalgia that's often undercut on the page by acts of gruesome violence too hot for TV or the R rating.

But we may be turning the corner. Eli Roth is scheduled to direct Cell, a movie in which cell phones unleash the worst in people (just like in real life), and Frank Darabont is working on The Mist, an apocalyptic monster-attack flick. This week, there's 1408—which is based, like The Mist, on a short story—and when it comes to King, that generally means it's likely to be stranger, darker and nastier than his novels. And stranger it is: Essentially a one-man show by John Cusack (augmented with a couple of big-name cameos), the movie adaptation is hard to fully peg, but it's certainly one of the most unusual horror movies to hit screens in quite a while.

Cusack is Mike Enslin, a tormented writer whose forte is guidebooks about alleged haunted houses, grading them on their atmosphere, but ultimately debunking the notion that any ghosts there are real. We can tell by his downer moods and black wardrobe that there's probably trauma in his past; one of the film's weaknesses is it takes forever to spell out what we can pretty much guess (especially those of us who've seen the spoiler-heavy trailer)—he lost a child. There's also some kind of issue with his dad, but that story is teased only to be dropped; we get exactly one flashback to the father (Len Cariou) in a nursing home, menacingly threatening Mike with the specter of his own mortality.

So when Mike, after yet another fruitless ghost chase, gets a post card from the Dolphin Hotel in New York, simply reading, "Don't stay in room 1408," his curiosity is piqued, especially when the manager (Samuel L. Jackson) insists it's not available, ever. He's particularly amused when he realizes that the sum of the digits in "1408" is 13, and it's actually on the 13th floor. Convinced he's being sold a very elaborate con, he has his publisher's lawyer force the issue and file a lawsuit using an old loophole in an anti-discrimination law that states a vacant room must be rented if it's available and requested.

Because the manager is Samuel L. Jackson, he's not going down without attempting some serious persuasion, culminating in the de rigueur Sam Jackson F-word quote: "It's an evil fuckin' room!" No one, we're told, has lasted more than an hour before dying, either of "natural" causes or by violent self-inflicted wounds. Why? It's an evil room. To the movie's credit, no further explanation is ever given beyond this. Only Stephen King can get away with that kind of unjustified concept.

So Mike checks in, locks the door . . . and gradually, all hell breaks loose.

At first, things are merely unnerving—a bed mysteriously turned down while Mike's back is turned, a clock radio that randomly plays "We've Only Just Begun," a painting suddenly placed at a different angle. Mike responds by doing shots—asked previously if he drinks, his response is "Of course! I just said I was a writer!" But gradually, things escalate, with various phantoms both benign and dangerous manifesting, alternate dimension-hopping, and a fun bit self-plagiarizing of an older King short story, "The Ledge" (previously filmed as part of the anthology movie Cat's Eye). When it comes to creating tension, forcing your hero outside on the ledge of a tall building always works.

But director Mikael Håfström (of the Clive Owens-Jennifer Aniston train wreck Derailed) doesn't quite seem to know what tone he's going for. The story maintains a creeping sense of dread at first, with some good sudden shocks, but eventually it verges on Evil Dead 2-style cartoonishness, where the goal simply seems to be to knock John Cusack on his ass and throw gallons of water in his face as often as possible. To his credit, Cusack is as game as the young Bruce Campbell was. By the time he's having an argument with a 6-inch tall Samuel L. Jackson who lives inside the minibar, most hopes of taking this movie seriously go out the window, disintegrating above the pavement like the room's suicidal phantoms.

And then Håfström recovers, pulling out a creepy finale against all odds. As unfortunate hotel-room horror flicks go, this may not be as tight as Vacancy, but by God, it's one of the most gleefully loony things you'll see this year.


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