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Sunday, July 01, 2007

1408 Reasons Why 1408 Failed

I love Stephen King, mmm-mmm-mmm boy, do I loves me the Stevie King. The conversational, down-home, small-town, Coca-Cola way he wrote was the most fun I've had reading until I encountered Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Hornby. Sure, while these latter two have now eclipsed the "Master of Horror" on my bookshelf, I'll always remember King, as he was my first.

Somewhere along the line, King lost his way - I don't know whether it was before or after his car accident (well, technically it wasn't his car, or his accident, but he was hit by a car and put into hospital, and let's just leave it there, if you can dig that), all I know is that it was fuckin' torture to try to get through The Tommyknockers, that Insomnia was a perfect cure for itself, and that "Bag of Bones" was bordering on false advertising. Even the remaining "Dark Tower" novels seemed to be lacking any of King's earlier enthusiasm, degenerating from what could have been a modern mythological tale into a convoluted mess. I wanted the old King back, the King that I had fallen in love with after reading Pet Sematary, a novel that managed to freak me out not because it included zombie cats, but because it realistically conveyed the horror of a parent losing a child (which was something that King would often tell interviewers was indeed his biggest fear).

Then, during my last year of high school, in which I skipped class to hang out in the library, I found it: Everything's Eventual. Supposedly made up of "14 Dark Tales," I had rediscovered my beloved Stephen King of old. "Autopsy Room Four" probed at the age-old fear of being buried alive, but taken to the extremes of the modern age, as a man was about to be post-mortem'd pre-mortem. The titular "Everything's Eventual" told the story of a man who could use symbols to kill people. "The Little Sisters of Eluria" was the best Dark Tower adventure since the first book. And then, of course, there was "1408."

Which is what brings me here today. I loved the story of "1408." It had the creepiest imagery I had ever seen in a King story, particularly the part about the paintings which changed from depicting kitsch-y scenes that could be found in any hotel room, to bizarre and eerie pictures that, while far from terrifying if you excluded their true nature, just felt wrong. Naturally, when I head that they were making a movie based on "1408" - with John Cusack, no less! - I had to see that fucker. "Might" or "maybe" wasn't even thrown about. I was going to see 1408.

And I did. And I was disappointed. Let me tell you why.

I was looking for creepy, and it gave me jumpy. Stephen King's a writer, so what he presents must necessarily be "cerebrally" scary - an image that haunts you, no matter how many times or how fast you read it. "1408" obliterates any semblance of King's presence by being all about the jumpy scare - where's the creepiness of paintings changing from tacky images into scenes of unease? Where's the non-sensical ramblings left on the tape recorder? No, instead of the creepiness of King's original story, we're deluged with some weird mix between The Shining and the Sixth Sense, with twists and dead children in abundance.

Mike Enslin (protagonist, Cusack's character, heavy drinker) has been hopping from haunted inn to haunted inn, trying to find evidence of paranormal activity so that he could write such books as "10 Haunted Hotels," "10 Haunted Cemetaries," and "10 Haunted Pet Stores." He also has a bit of an ulterior motive - he wants to find evidence of an afterlife, because his daughter died, years ago, and he wants to know that she's still "out there."

Now, I'm sure you won't be surprised when I tell you that this new "dead daughter" angle is a recent addition, and was not penned by the hand of Stephen King. See, in the original story that I loved so much, Mike Enslin is dead: he wandered into the Dolphin Hotel looking to debunk their famous haunted room, and was instead treated to being blown completely out of his mind. We're hearing the story from, if I remember correctly, a conversation between the hotel's manager (played in the film by Samuel L. Jackson) and an insurance representative. The manager has Enslin's tape recorder (which, happily, featured prominently in the film as well), and all that was on the tape were the incoherent ramblings of a nutcase, including phrases about werewolves eating his brother on the highway (a phrase that makes a cameo in the film by way of a type-written sheet in Samuel L. Jackson's "big honkin' file o' scary shit").

In the story, Mike Enslin is dead because Mike Enslin needs to be dead - it was his hubris to think that he could survive where others had not that was his downfall. It was a morality tale.

In the film, Mike Enslin doesn't die. Mike Enslin is tormented by the room for no particular reason other than Samuel L. Jackson is pissed that he's debunking his ghostly buddies. But if you think about it, Mike Enslin doesn't deserve to be tormented by the room - he wants the room to be haunted, because he wants to know that his daughter is still, I repeat, "out there." It's not in his best interest have hubris, and he's not debunking the haunted hotels for jollies - he sincerely wants to find a building that has a ghost in it. Which is precisely why this move fails so goddamn hard - whenever Enslin's daughter is mentioned, we know that's why he's searching for ghosts. But at every other time, he's presented as a smug jackass who just wants to destroy people's false beliefs (just like in the story). Mike Enslin encountered the haunted room in the story because he needed to be "corrected" for his smug attitude, the ever popular morality theme of preaching humility. So why did he encounter the room in the film?

I don't know, you tell me.

Was it one of those, "be careful what you wish for" deals? No, because ol' Mike eventually found what he was looking for - proof that his daughter was not dead, that there may in fact be a "god." Hell, if I were Mike, why would I have even left 1408? If there's an afterlife, and my dead daughter's there and well, I might as well just sit back and let the room claim me. Or jump out the window like it wanted me to. The dead daughter tells Mike some cryptic bullshit about things "not letting her go," but this is never elaborated upon. Hey! maybe if this movie actually had some kind of message, "not letting go" might have actually seemed to carry some weight (see my recommendations for how the movie could have been improved)!

So, the problem in the film is cause and effect, or motivation. Anything that happens in 1408 doesn't seem to follow from anything - it happens because the plot demands that it happens.

How could it have been better?

i) Mike Enslin is searching desperately for paranormal activity as evidence for an afterlife, so that he can hope that his daughter isn't really dead. Room 1408 makes him realize the folly of his search by showing him that life is what's important by making him believe that he's going to die. Thus, in the end, he escapes with his life and gets on with it, putting all the foolish ghost-story books behind him as he gets back to doing what he does best - writing deep, introspective fiction.

ii) Mike Enslin is searching desperately for paranormal activity as evidence for an afterlife, so that he can hope that his daughter isn't really dead. Becoming disillusioned, he gives up, until weeks later he is sent a postcard telling him not to "go into Room 1408." He only survives Room 1408 by not giving up, and he carries this moral over into his life as he continues to search for evidence of an afterlife.

These are simple fixes that would have given the story some meaning. As it stands, it doesn't - it falls flat on it's dopey, modern-paranormal-thriller face.

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