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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


In the past few years, it feels like all Iíve done is complain about the state of the modern horror movie. I like the genre, but Iíve been disgusted (physically and morally) by the current wave of ďtorture pornĒ pictures like Hostel and the Saw series. These movies seem to exist for the sole purpose of showing people getting tortured or brutalized in increasingly gruesome ways. I often wonder what happened to the art of actually telling a scary story; it sometimes feels like horror filmmakers arenít interested in that anymore. Then comes something like 1408 (based on a Stephen King short story), which is like a refresher course in how to build and sustain suspense. This tale about a haunted hotel room is a welcome antidote to the torture porn flicks weíve been queasily digesting recently. 1408 is the first genuinely scary movie Iíve seen since The Ring, and it restores my faith in Hollywoodís ability to make artful horror.

John Cusack stars as Mike Enslin, a guy who writes books about haunted places heís visited. As he works on his newest book, Enslin receives a postcard tipping him off to perhaps the most haunted place imaginable: room 1408 of New Yorkís Dolphin Hotel. He tries to book a night there, only to be stonewalled by the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). It seems, Olin explains, that over 50 people have died in that room, many by their own hand, and no one who enters it lasts for more than an hour. Consequently, he no longer allows anyone to stay in it. Enslin is a tough cookie, however, who eventually backs Olin down.

Upon first glance, the room is completely non-frightening. It looks just like any other hotel room. After a few minutes, Enslin starts to notice a few quirks, though. The radio turns itself on full blast, and the chocolates on the pillowcase appear out of nowhere. Initially, he thinks that Olin is just messing with him. Then the hallucinations start. Enslin begins seeing things, hearing things, and experiencing things that arenít there. It gets so bad that he tries to leave, only to discover that the door wonít open. Heís trapped, and whatever evil force rules the room is just getting warmed up. One of the most disturbing things he sees are the ghostly figures of past room guests who committed suicide while within its four walls. Each of these ghosts re-enacts their own death in front of him. This is one of the creepiest things Iíve seen in a movie in a long time.

Iím not going to go into too many other specifics about what Enslin encounters. You can Ė and should Ė discover them for yourself. What I do want to point out is that Mike Enslin is really in a hell of his own making. As the story progresses, we learn that the character has had tragedy in his life that he has never adequately dealt with, by choice. The hellacious things in the room seem to represent his subconscious bubbling up. All the guilt, sorrow, and anger he feels manifest themselves as paranormal visions. If he is to survive (and he very well may not), he needs to confront all the painful things he has trampled down in his own mind. It is said that when someone tries to repress painful memories, those things eventually resurface in an uncontrollable blast, much like the way a soda can explodes if you shake it enough. Thatís what happens to Enslin. The hotel room seems to tap into his subconscious to drudge up everything heís worked so hard to avoid facing.

It is this element that makes me like 1408 so much. Director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) gives the movie a spectacular visual style, and he masterfully creates some super-scary set pieces. But itís the theme of the film that makes it work at a higher level than most horror movies. This is not the kind of picture that provides empty scares; instead, it roots the horror in real emotions. The point of the story may be that no haunted house could ever be as terrifying as what happens to the human mind when all the inner demons are unleashed.

Another really solid element of the film is that the room itself is a character. The look of it changes as the story progresses, even as its geography stays the same. You can literally see it becoming more evil. Room 1408 is the antagonist to John Cusackís protagonist. For most of the running time, Cusack is the only person on screen, and he must act with the room. Not in the room - with the room. As 1408 unleashes one hallucination after another, Cusack must respond with varying degrees of emotion. Sometimes heís amused, sometimes heís genuinely terrified, and other times he appears to be teetering precariously on the edge of sanity. Before the movie is over, he will break down physically and emotionally, more than once. Not many actors have the charisma to hold you in their grip as they act alone. Cusack does it, while helping to sell the room as the entity he is reacting to. The Oscars have a way of looking past mainstream movies in general (and horror films in particular), so thereís little chance Cusack will get recognized for his work here. But he deserves to.

I am told that 1408 deviates from Stephen Kingís short story. That may be true, but it nevertheless remains faithful to his style. King is good at conjuring up spine-chilling scenarios that are rooted in actual observations about human nature. The movie may change some of the events, but it never loses sight of Kingís ambition. You can see this nowhere better than in the filmís final scene, which is likely to irritate those viewers who are incapable of reading between the lines. There is no nice, neat, simple resolution here Ė just a concluding scene that points us (and Mike Enslin) in a new direction. One big answer is provided that generates dozens of new questions, for us and for him. Thatís the point. It makes perfect sense if you think about it. For a movie that so bravely deals with inner torment, I can think of no better ending.

( 1/2 out of four)

1408 is rated PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing sequences of violence and terror, frightening images and language. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out 1408

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