Before we can really talk about this film, we need to talk about definitions. This is where a lot of film critics run into trouble. We look at movies differently than normal people. In fact, just the other day, my own mother asked me if there were any films I actually liked. Now the reason for this is because we, sometimes, expect more from a film than possibly the filmmakers themselves.
In 1408, John Cusack plays a talented novelist who becomes an even more popular writer when he decides to start hunting ghost stories instead. He does this after his daughter dies. I’m not giving anything away here, it’s in the trailer, although the way it comes about in the movie is rather well done. Now here’s the part where definitions come into play. What would make this film succeed? If the filmmakers are looking at their film as a treatise on how to recover after the horrific loss of a child, how moving on is a part of staying with the living, then this film is a failure. If, however, the filmmakers were much simpler in their demands, if all they wanted out of the slightly more than 90 minutes of screen time they gave us was to creep us out and create an atmosphere where our girlfriends were going to jump into out arms at midnight on a Friday… well then this is a bona fide success. I suppose, for that matter, it depends on what you as a viewer are looking for in a film like this. As a critic, I’m looking for a little more artistic intent than this one offers – which isn’t to say they don’t try.
There’s a lot of attempt at creating that film of loss and redemption, of recovery and hope, but it falls flat. Whether Cusack can’t maintain it or the writing isn’t up to the task is unclear, but at the end of the day, this film falls short in the human emotion department. And, to be fair, the film does place an unusually heavy burden on Cusack’s shoulders. Most of the film is based on how he is going to react to an empty room and again, while he does an admirable job, things just don’t quite gel the way they should in order to get the emotional, visceral reaction needed to elevate this to a great film.
That all said, boy does it work as a creepy, creepy thriller (that’s right, I used “creepy” twice!). Writers Matt Greenberg and Scott Alexander really play havoc with genre conventions – and here, I’m not going to say too much, because I really want you to experience it for yourselves. Suffice to say that when you think you know what’s happening… you don’t. And don’t expect things you see from the trailer to give you any clues. There are scenes from the previews which do not appear anywhere in the film itself, so no, you’re walking blind when it comes to specifics (yes, big plot points are there, it’s the details you have to watch out for).
Director Mikael Håfström does a great job of building suspense and diffusing it, either with a scare or a release, and either way he’s breaking with a lot of horror movie conventions. Like I said, most of this film takes place in a two room hotel suite and at various times Håfström either makes it seem as expansive as the Serengeti or as claustrophobic as a mine shaft, without ever leaving the boundaries of the room itself. He has a tremendous amount of skill, but is missing the human element. His last film, Derailed, had a lot of the same traits. It was very clever and well done, breaking convention but ultimately falling flat. I honestly think that as soon as he gets a script which is emotionally connective, he’s going to become an award-winner.
Before I send you off to the theatre, though, I must include a special shout-out to Sound Designer Nigel Mills. The sound in this movie is phenomenal. As an often overlooked area, sound can play an incredibly important role in creating atmosphere and in 1408 it is used to brilliant effect.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)