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Hotel hell rings a bell

â€Å"1408” can’t quite live up to very similar king classic â€Å"The Shining”

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It is difficult not to compare every movie based on a Stephen King horror story to the greatness of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980).  There have been other great King-to-screen fright fests, notably Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976) and Rob Reiner’s “Misery” (1990), but there was something extra about Kubrick’s interpretation, where the isolated setting and psychological mind games — not to mention Jack Nicholson’s tour-de-force performance — created an increasing level of tension and uncertainty right up to the bitterly cold end. 

And now comes “1408,” based on King’s similarly titled short story.  It, too, takes place in an isolated and psychologically terrifying setting, but while it has a great cast and some seriously scary moments, it doesn’t quite stack up.  Perhaps that’s because it’s largely derivative.  As in “The Shining,” “1408” features a writer who likes to drink, who has a horrible trauma in his past, and whose surroundings send him spiraling into his own private hell. 

John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a sell-out author, who once wrote a novel that touched a few lives but wasn’t a commercial success.  He now makes a living writing about haunted places.  His latest project has him staying overnight in “haunted” hotels around the country.  It’s always the same, however, because he’s not a believer.  He’d actually like to have a paranormal experience, but he never does.  He checks in, he records a few notes in his tape recorder, he sleeps and then wakes up, having lived to tell the tale. 

When he receives a postcard from the historic Dolphin Hotel in New York City, he’s intrigued by the note: “Don’t Enter 1408.”  He calls for a reservation and the manager tells him emphatically that they do not book that room.  When Mike shows up and insists on checking into 1408, the manager, Mr. Olin, invites him into his office to have a drink and gives him a dossier filled with details of the deaths that have occurred therein — 56 in all. 

Why the hotel didn’t just turn the room into storage or simply lock it up is explained away in one line, which doesn’t make sense.  If just a handful of people, let alone 56, died in the same room in any hotel, the hotel would probably be shut down completely, or at the very least the room would be emptied, locked up and the room number replaced with a “Do Not Enter” sign.  But let’s not let logic get in the way here. 

Mike gets his way, enters the room and barely has time to settle in before the madness begins.  There are window slams, faucet malfunctions, voices, visions of ghosts, oozing walls, phantom turn-down service and so much more that Mike starts to think and do things that no sane person would do — not unlike Jack Torrance in “The Shining.”  Mike has one thing going for him that Jack did not, however.  Mike is likable; we want him to conquer his demons.  But if you think you can figure this one out, think again.  Nothing is as it seems, and though there are some other inexplicable things that might give you pause as you suspend your disbelief, “1408” is still a notch above much of the current horror fare in theaters now. 

It should be noted that Samuel L. Jackson, as Mr. Olin, doesn’t get much screen time, but makes the most of what he’s given, not in a scene-stealing sort of way, but in a straight-up, dignified, worker-bee kind of way.  It says a lot about an actor of a certain rank who will take smaller roles just because he likes the project, or it’s a good part (think Judi Dench’s eight minutes in 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love,” for which she won an Oscar). 

That said, Cusack is really the one to watch here as the majority of this film takes place in the two-room suite.  All the suspense and shock depends on his performance, how he reacts from minute to minute, and he does a terrific job under Mikael Hafstrom’s direction.  We’ve seen Cusack play manic characters before.  He’s good at it, and all that practice pays off here. 



Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson and Mary


Director: Mikael Hafstrom

Rated: PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing sequences of violence and terror, frightening images and language

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