In February, I saw a film called The Messengers and I firmly believe it’s the worst case scenario for a PG-13 rated horror film. Of that, I wrote at horroryearbook.com: “PG-13 rated horror films are like the jukeboxes at strip clubs. You might get a little ‘LaGrange’ you might get a little ‘Legs,’ you might even get a little ‘Sharp-Dressed Man.’ But at the end of the day it’s all the same damn ZZ Top.” They’re frightened of their own shadow, wanting to be scary but not having the elbow room to do anything to be scared of.
But if a PG-13 horror movie succeeds, it succeeds very well, because it used its handicap to its advantage and tried that whole “creativity” thing we hear bandied about a lot but so very rarely see. Not only that, but if it does well in the worst of conditions, you may find yourself more impressed with it than you would many horror films that have that R rating that smug-as-fuck horror fans will tell you is mandatory.
Think about it like this: Which hunter impresses you more? The one with the camo gear, GPS, and high powered rifle with laser scope? Or the dude hiding in a tree with JUST a cheap bow and arrow?
1408, I am proud to say, is the BEST case scenario for a PG-13 horror film. It’s a well played and well made character study with a damn fine performance by John Cusack and wonderful base material by Stephen King… And it is the CREEPIEST damn thing…
Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a travel author wrapped in layers of cynicism to drown out the angry voices of a shitty past. Not just any kind of travel author, Enslin stays at various supposed “haunted” places all across the world and writes about what he sees (jack and shit) and publishes with titles like Ten Haunted Hotels and Ten Haunted Lighthouses.
Then he gets a postcard in the mail from the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan. No return address, just a quick message: “Don’t Enter 1408.”
After some legal wrangling trying to get the room, (even the staff doesn’t want anyone entering 1408) Enslin finally gets a sitdown with the manager Olin, played with officious intelligence in a small role by Samuel L. Jackson. He tells Enslin that there have been fifty-six deaths of both a natural and suicidal nature in 1408 and practically begs him not to go in there. “I just don’t want to clean up the mess,” he says.
Enslin checks into 1408 and there are shenanigans… Lots and lots of shenanigans.
1408 has no theme, no deep psychological meaning, no labored political allusions and no childish desire to up any ante. It’s just a crisp, clean story that has no other desire than to entertain and spookify me, the paying customer. Given the current trends in horror movies, this pleases me to practically no end. And it has no gore for the simple reason that, well, it doesn’t really NEED any. What was the last horror movie you saw that could get by with its wits and without corn syrup and red food coloring?
The film’s primary charm is that it plays differently than any other story of a haunting I’ve seen. There’s no backstory to figure out to send the ghosts to a better place so the room will no longer remain haunted. It doesn’t work like that. The room is evil, well, just because, and that creates a no-win situation. What I like about that is that the story boils down to a sheer battle of wills between Enslin and whatever twisted revenant has made Room 1408 its home. Enslin falls on his common sense, his past experiences, and his own cynicism to debunk the power the room has and find a way out, and 1408 shreds his lines of self-defense one by one. Everything in the room, from the bed to the TV to the paintings on the wall to the window to the mini-fridge to even the goddamn roll of toilet paper in the bathroom serve to chip away at this poor man’s psyche.
And whatever IS in that room fights dirty. Imagine being ruled over on a Heaven-and-Hell scale by some kid who burns ants with a magnifying glass and knows all your secrets and you’ll get the idea. The Poltergeist uses Enslin’s own logic against him in a few cases and even takes him a tenth of the movie in the wrong direction before plopping his ass right back down where he started from. The room then brings up his past (I won’t give anything away) to systematically destroy him from the inside out. This culminates in a scene late in the movie that’s so macabre and so abrupt and so heartless that, given what we know about Mike Enslin, it was really tough to watch.
And that’s what’s so damn frightening about this movie. We LIKE Enslin and we identify with him the more we learn about him. And we in turn are scared because this poor man is powerless to help himself. This is strong writing from Matt Greenberg and the duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who were responsible for Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and… Problem Child? (Dude, what the fuck?)
1408 is essentially a one-character piece and without an actor who is up to the challenge this movie will not fly at all. John Cusack, who until recent years was the most reliable guy in Hollywood until that America’s Sweethearts/Must Love Dogs bullshit, scores like you’ve never seen. It’d be all too easy to eat the scenery without swallowing with a part like this, but Cusack manages the feat of slowly but surely devolving from an embittered smartass to quivering mass of dementia. This is the most centered and mature that I’ve ever seen him.
I’ve heard plenty about the evils of PG-13 horror movies and the virtues of their R-rated counterparts. I know this because most if it came from my own lips. It’s at this point that I must recant and eat some crow. After months of watching annoying co-eds being slaughtered in molasses-slow ways by power tools, I have just seen a movie about a man whose heart and soul have been intruded upon and are slowly being devoured by madness.
Y’know… Something that REALLY fuckin’ hurts.