Horror films don't need to beat us over the head with blood and guts to be scary, as proven by Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, Stanley Kubrick and countless others. The latter directed Stephen King's least favorite adaptation of his work in The Shining, in which a haunted hotel drives a writer to smoldering insanity. We encounter a similar situation in 1408 (2007), Mikael Hafstrom's adaptation of King's short story of the same name, in which quasi-celebrated horror writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is tormented by supernatural forces. In this case, however, our protagonist is actually hoping to get spooked.
After a string of tedious "haunted hotel" visits and a mildly successful book about the same subject, Enslin receives a provocative postcard from The Dolphin Hotel, a swanky joint in New York with an infamously creepy reputation. Several guests have met untimely demises during their stay in Room 1408, due to natural and decidedly unnatural causes. The grisly mystique drives Enslin to request that very room, much to the dismay of manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). Olin even warns that no guest has ever survived more than an hour in the room, but such baited statements only make Enslin dig in harder. Before we know it (even though the tension builds slowly during this first act), the author is getting settled in for the night.
Of course, not all is as it seems, and it's to the credit of Hafstrom and company that 1408 delivers plenty of thrills and chills. Enslin (and Cusack, by extension) is really put through the wringer, tortured with physical trappings and bitter flashbacks from his broken family life. Even detractors of the film have to admit that 1408 goes for the throat on many occasions, often doing so with plenty of style and energy to spare. Cusack shines in what might be his most impressive dramatic role to date: torn between cynicism, doubt and feverish paranoia, Enslin remains a likeable protagonist and a fairly three-dimensional character. If nothing else, Cusack's performance---as well as the minor but memorable showing by Jackson---is practically worth the price of admission alone.
Still, it's hard to sit through 1408 without noticing a few nagging faults. This isn't the first "questionable reality" horror film to trick us with a false ending or two, but they often create an awkward pace that causes the third act to stumble. Additionally, Enslin's back story (which revolves around a broken marriage, severed by the death of his young daughter) feels a bit forced in all but one noteworthy sequence. These faults can't help but tarnish the film's eventual resolution, which leaves us with plenty of questions...but not always in a good way. The result is a somewhat plodding and awkward conclusion to an otherwise serviceable horror film---and though it may not be as troublesome upon repeated viewings, the first time leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Either way, fans of Stephen King should enjoy 1408 for its thick atmosphere and Cusack's dynamic performance. Genius Products' two-disc DVD package combines a solid technical presentation with a few noteworthy extras, including a director's cut of the film with an alternate ending. It all adds up to a dense and (mostly) satisfying package---and even though you might not revisit 1408 very often, there's enough here to satisfy those who enjoy a good scare. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, 1408 looks predictably excellent from start to finish. The film's stylized color palette is vivid and natural, while image detail and contrast are about as solid as standard definition DVD gets. Edge enhancement, pixellation and other digital eyesores are virtually absent here, rounding out the visual department quite nicely.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 (also available in a French dub) and conveys the appropriate atmosphere in all respects. Plenty of surround activity enhances the creepiness during suspenseful sequences, while other moments give the room a more claustrophobic, desolate feel. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, never fighting for attention with the music and sound effects. Optional English captions and Spanish subtitles are included during the main feature.
Disc 2 brings more meat to the table: leading things off is the Extended Director's Cut of 1408 (112 minutes), presented with optional audio commentary by director Mikael Hafstrom and writers Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. This alternate cut actually isn't all that different until at least an hour in; aside from a few split seconds of additional violence and the like, we're given a few more character moments and an alternate ending. New or notably extended scenes include the creepy airshaft sequence (giving more face time to the mummy-like creature and a few additional "flashbacks"), the post office visit after Mike's initial "departure" from the room and a new scene where Mike visits his father.
As for the alternate (or in this case, original) ending, it's drastically different than the theatrical cut---and without giving away too much, one of the major supporting characters is cast in a completely different light. We're left with a much more satisfying conclusion to the film, though it hints at a possible continuation of the story. Overall, this is a solid effort as far as director's cuts go; it runs about 8 minutes longer in all, while Hafstrom, Alexander and Karaszewski provide a decent audio commentary to back it up. This group chat takes a while to get rolling and the participants aren't always on the same wavelength, but those who enjoyed the film should give this a listen.
Next up are a few Deleted Scenes (5 clips, 11:21 total) with optional commentary by the same participants; these scenes include "Contacting Lily", "Wrought With Guilt", "I Warned You About 1408", "Tilting Room & Lily Pleads At Door" and "Arriving At The Dolphin". It's important to note that these sequences aren't part of the director's cut---and while a few minor moments of interest are included, the commentary participants do a good job of explaining why they didn't quite fit.
Closing things out is a short collection of Featurettes including "The Characters" (7:59), "The Director" (5:14), "The Physical Effects" (4:17) and "The Production Design" (5:24). These self-explanatory tidbits don't add a great amount of detail, but fans should certainly browse through them at least once. All bonus features are presented with optional English subtitles (NOTE: the director's cut also includes Spanish subs) and are anamorphically enhanced, except for those found on Disc 1.
It's certainly not without a few nagging faults, but Mikael Hafstrom's 1408 provides a solid amount of thrills, chills and suspense. Cusack turns in a memorable performance as a writer tormented by the very thoughts and nightmares he practically wished upon himself, while the claustrophobic production design conveys the terror quite well. Though the film's "false endings" work against it and the resolution isn't quite satisfying, there's enough here to keep most viewers coming back for more. Genius Products' two-disc package serves up a solid technical presentation and a few noteworthy bonus features, including an interesting director's cut on Disc 2. Casual fans will be satisfied with a rental, but followers of Cusack and Stephen King should find 1408 worth the price of admission. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.