1408 (2-Disc Collector’s Edition)

ON

Coming to DVD Tuesday, October 2nd

Cast:

John Cusack as Mike Enslin

Samuel L. Jackson as Gerard Olin

Mary McCormack as Lily Enslin

Jasmine Jessica Anthony as Katie Enslin

Tony Shalhoub as Sam Farrell

Directed by Mikael Håfström

Review:

A sure way to make most horror fans groan in disapproval is to tell them that an upcoming fear flick is going to be PG-13. It’s like a conditioned response. There’s always that sense of exasperation, like, “well, I guess I shouldn’t get excited about that one” but I’ve yet to determine why that is. Sure, I don’t want every horror movie to be PG or PG-13 but come on, “Jaws” is PG. And Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” is G, for crying out loud. And in recent years films like “The Ring,” “The Sixth Sense,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “The Grudge,” “Signs” and “The Others” have all been – arguably – scarier than the heavy-handed brutality of the “Hostel” or “Saw” films. And if not for its profanity, “The Blair Witch Project” would’ve likely been PG-13, or even PG.

With so many noted examples to the contrary, it always baffles me when fans throw up their hands at the prospect of a PG-13 horror film, as though the rating itself prohibits any chance of it being scary. And yet no matter how many of them prove to be effective, the response is typically a begrudging “Well, yeah – I guess it was good…for a PG-13.”

Which brings me to “1408,” the latest Stephen King adaptation and the latest in the long line of “Hey, for a PG-13 that was really good!” horror movies. When director Mikael Hafstrom’s film was released to theaters this past June it marked a much-needed upturn in horror’s box office fortunes. Prior to “1408,” genre releases that were deemed as ‘can’t-miss’ propositions like “Grindhouse” and “Hostel Part II” played to paltry attendance. It was argued that the audience for horror had faded after a brief boom. But then “1408” surprised skeptics by scoring just over $20 million at the box office its opening weekend.

So what was the draw? I think it’s simple – people go to horror movies that they hope will scare them and “1408” looked to offer the best prospects on that front that audiences had seen in awhile. It wasn’t a film that one needed to be versed in arcane film history to appreciate or one that upped the ante on new ways to remove someone’s spleen with a rusty potato peeler. It just promised to be a solid horror movie. It was, and word of mouth did the rest.

On Dimension Films’ two-disc DVD release of “1408,” we’re treated to two versions of the film. On disc one is the theatrical cut. Disc two contains the extended Director’s Cut. After watching both, I’m grateful that unlike their recent DVD release of Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” that Dimension didn’t make the Director’s Cut of “1408” the sole edition of the film on home video. If they had, one of the best horror movies of the year wouldn’t have been able to have its much-deserved appreciation on disc. The Director’s Cut is so blatantly inferior to what moviegoers saw this past summer that I’m amazed that anyone would deem it as a worthy alternative, much less stamp it as their preferred cut.

In adapting King’s short story, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt”), working from an earlier draft by Matt Greenberg (“Halloween: H20,” “Reign of Fire”), have made “1408” an exercise in craft (fittingly, as King’s story itself began as a writing example – his version of an archetypal ‘Ghostly Room At The Inn’ tale – intended only to appear in excerpts in his book On Writing). Director Hafstrom (“Derailed”) does an admirably restrained job with the material and the small cast is uniformly excellent.

John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, an author who makes his living touring supposedly haunted locales and writing about his experiences. He’s not quite a professional debunker; it’s just been working out that way (on a side note, the perpetually baseball cap-wearing Enslin sports a White Sox cap in his first scene – an inside nod to Cuscak’s role in John Sayles 1988’s baseball scandal drama “Eight Men Out,” perhaps?).

In his forced conversion from skeptic to believer, Enslin’s ordeal speaks to the notion (which director Stanley Kubrick expressed to Stephen King while he was working on “The Shining”) that in the end, all ghost stories are hopeful because they speak to a belief in an afterlife. And as “1408” unfolds, we find that Enslin’s heart isn’t completely in the land of the living, having lost his young daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) to a disease some years earlier. This element could’ve made for a mawkish subplot but it’s handled deftly enough to make it avoid playing like a cheap device.

After being tipped off to the formidable reputation of Room 1408 in NYC’s Dolphin Hotel by an anonymously sent postcard (in a nice touch of art direction, Enslin reads this postcard in an LA diner whose nautical décor subtly foreshadows a similarly-themed painting that Enslin will encounter in 1408), and after having to threaten the venerable hotel with a lawsuit in order to book the room, Cusack arrives at NYC’s Dolphin Hotel prepared to take on the infamous 1408, only to be waylaid by the Dolphin’s manager Gerald Olin (Samuel Jackson, in fine form).

As Olin tries to cajole, coerce, bribe – and finally, all but beg – Enslin to change his mind, this expertly played scene in which Olin gives a grim rundown of 1408’s nasty history brings to mind the lengthy scene in which Anthony Heald prepares Jodie Foster to meet Hannibal Lecter for the first time in “Silence of the Lambs.” Like that scene, it serves to pre-sell the audience on the stature of the film’s villain. And as in “Silence,” it’s a marvelous set-up that leaves the filmmakers no room to fumble the pay-off. Whatever transpires in 1408 once Enslin enters it, it’s important we believe it would be enough to turn anyone subjected to it mad.

And for my money, the subsequent film makes good on that. Cusack gets to use every ounce of his acting chops here and it makes for an impressive show. Also impressive is director Hafstrom’s limited use of CG. So many horror films today make a big, self-congratulatory deal out of it if they utilize practical gore but “1408” harkens back to the days of all-around physical FX (abetted by Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography and Andrew Laws’ production design) where as much as possible is done by practical means on-set and in-camera (one instance of CG actually surprised me, though – the condensation of Cusack’s breath in one scene when the temperature in 1408 drops below freezing – fooled me good as I would’ve sworn it was done by physically cooling the set a la “The Exorcist”). As we see in the behind-the-scene footage on the special features, the “1408” sets were numerous and each had its own actions it was designed to perform.

Hafstrom makes so many smart choices telling the story of “1408” that it’s disappointing to see his Director’s Cut needlessly pad out what is essentially an already slightly padded “Twilight Zone” or “Tales from the Darkside episode. A good portion of both versions is the same but the Director’s Cut reinstates too many moments that had been justly pruned back as well as offering a completely altered ending. Mostly the Director’s Cut offers further examples of Enslin’s contentious relationship with his dad. As he crawls through the hotel’s airshafts, for instance, Enslin glimpses a past image of his father berating him. He also sees his father again in a nursing home during a later sequence.

Then there’s the matter of the alternate ending, which proves to be appallingly wrong for the film. It’s drawn-out well past the point where the story is clearly over, it manages to make Mary McCormack’s character of ex-wife Lily Enslin seem vaguely unlikable, and finally it sends the whole business out on a note I can’t even believe was ever regarded as acceptable, even before preview audiences weighed in. As much as fans like to disparage the test screening process, Hafstron’s Director’s Cut of “1408” proves that even good films can require some shaping.

Stick with the theatrical cut. In that shorter version “1408” is a great little horror film that hits nearly every beat just right. Under its well-timed jolts, its vivid depiction of grief, loss and personal regret offer a rueful reminder that sooner or later we can all find ourselves alone in a room, haunted.

Extras:

Disc 1: Two webisodes, ‘John Cusack on 1408’ and ‘Inside 1408’ both of which are negligible. Plus, the theatrical trailer (notable for its glimpse of a cheap scare that was thankfully abandoned by both versions of the film itself).

Disc 2: Commentary by director Mikael Hafstrom and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski that leans towards the amiable but dry. There’s also five deleted scenes with optional commentary that wouldn’t have brought anything vital to the movie. There’s also a four-part behind the scenes documentary that covers ‘The Characters’ (wherein Hafstrom opines that “the room is the main character in the film.”), ‘The Director’ (in which Hafstrom’s cast and crew single out special praise for his work with actors), ‘The Physical Effects’ (involving looks at the titling sets and underwater tanks ultilized in the film), and finally ‘Production Design’ (where the special challenges offered by a film set in such a limited location are discussed).

Also included in the package are five movie-themed postcards so you can send your own invitations to the Dolphin Hotel!