Written by: Dave Brouillette, Special to CC2K
I remember a time I looked forward to seeing John Cusack movies. With his laid-back, quirky sense of humor, and his good taste in scripts, usually you could expect something delightfully interesting from him. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way he was led astray. I’m guessing it was somewhere around the time he decided to do Con Air, leading him to work with Jerry Bruckheimer, a bad move for any actor (see Nicolas Cage). Cusack tried to make up for it with a part in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. I believe his thought process went a little something like this: “If I work with a director even quirkier than me, then that’ll surely put my career back on track!” He wasn’t the only one to attempt this with Spike Jonze (once again, see Nicolas Cage). Unfortunately, after a few sputtering gasps which included the insidiously obnoxious romantic comedy Serendipity, and the woefully predictable Identity, his career seemed to finally come to a close.
Despite the fact that most of America has long since decided Cusack’s sister Joan is much more interesting than he is, he stubbornly refuses to head to Hollywood’s acting cemetery (aka Hollywood Squares). This week, he released his new movie, 1408. As you could imagine, I was taking this movie with a large grain of salt. Not only did it star the once great Cusack, but also Samuel L. Jackson, who never met a script he didn’t like. To round off the list of people involved in this movie who’ve long ago ceased to impress me, the film is based on a short story by Stephen King.
Much to my surprise, I had a great time at this movie. The story, while simplistic, is well written. The film follows Mike Enslin, a cynical writer who once wrote meaningful literature, but is reduced to writing reviews of haunted hotels around the country. He spends his time sleeping in allegedly haunted rooms, looking for proof of poltergeists, but finds nothing but struggling hotel managers who are trying to make ends meet. Then he gets a postcard warning him to stay away from New York’s upper class Dolphin hotel. After some research, he decides to give it a shot, and flies off to New York City. Despite warnings by the hotel manager (played quite brilliantly by Jackson), he insists on staying the night. I’m sure you can see where this is going… and yes, that is where it’s going.
Having the main character trapped in a room filled with all sorts of creepiness and craziness may not seem very effective, but it works quite well. Cusack, as Enslin, is definitely up to the task of carrying this film. This is good, because he spends most of it alone interacting with the room or his tape recorder. Many actors would come across as bland and unbelievable in this sort of setting, but he shines. The movie is nicely punctuated by thrills, as we follow Enslin’s descent into insanity. Thrills of all sorts: quick, in-your-face screaming kinds of thrills; mind bending what-happened-to-my-reality? kinds of thrills; and even heart-stopping I-can’t-believe-what-I-just-saw kinds of thrills. All wrapped around a story that is at times is both funny and (slightly) touching. While the story is not complex, it’s strong enough to hold the viewer’s interest. Of course, the movie isn’t about the story. Simple is the word here.
This is not a horror movie which is overly-burdened by plot; there are no deeper levels here (in fact, my English teacher girlfriend was hoping to find the connection between Enslin’s inability to escape the room and his inability to escape his past, but I don’t think it was that deep). In most cases, that might seem like a liability, but not so for this little gem. The film rather focuses on the simplicity of the idea: One man, one room, plenty of scares. It pulls this off quite brilliantly without resorting to cheap blood-and-gore type thrills. If you’re looking for a fun film that requires little thought but plenty of jumping, this works beautifully. Jerry Bruckheimer didn’t work for Cusack, nor did Spike Jonze. But somehow, the Cusack/Jackson/King trifecta of burnt-out talent may get all three of them off my shit-list.