"Where is the bone-chilling terror? Show me the rivers of blood. It's just a room."
Early in '1408', the main character makes note that the individual digits in the titular hotel room add up to a total of 13, the famously unlucky number. In the spirit of cinematic math, '1408' itself amounts to about 3/4 of a really good horror movie and 1/4 of a pretty bad one.
The film is based on a Stephen King short story that had been previously published as part of both audiobook ('Blood and Smoke') and written ('Everything's Eventual') compilations. Between his novels, novellas, short stories, audio recordings, web-books, non-fiction, epic poems, limericks, and haikus, the author has written on average 867 stories a year for the past 30 years, so it stands to reason that he's going to repeat himself every so often. This tale of a haunted hotel room that drives its inhabitants crazy shares more than a passing resemblance to 'The Shining', but fortunately has enough clever twists of its own to keep things fresh.
John Cusack stars as Mike Enslin, a cynical author stuck in a rut of churning out travelogue guides to supposedly haunted vacation spots. The writer himself doesn't believe in ghosts or monsters, and is completely jaded about his career, cashing the paychecks on a book tour attended by few. Lured to the Dolphin Hotel in New York City, whose room 1408 has a checkered history of murders, suicides, and unusual deaths both natural and unnatural, Enslin begins the trip with his typical skepticism but is quickly intrigued by the ominous warnings from hotel manager Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). Convinced that it's all an act designed to build a mystique around the hotel, Enslin cajoles his way into a night's stay in the room despite being told that no previous guest has ever made it more than an hour.
Once inside, the author is disappointed to discover how dreary and bland Room 1408 appears. There are no spooky cobwebs hanging from rafters, no impenetrable shadows in every corner, and no vampire bats circling the ceiling. It's just a hotel room, with a bed, a TV, and the usual accoutrements, the same as any other. But there is something not quite right about it, and it doesn't take long before scary developments start occurring. Mints appear on Mike's pillow from out of nowhere. The toilet paper roll restocks itself when he's not looking. It begins with little things at first, just enough to make him think that this is all perhaps an elaborate prank by the hotel's staff, until the room becomes decidedly more aggressive in its tactics and refuses to let him leave. And then all hell breaks loose.
For about 90 minutes or so, director Mikael Håfström ('Derailed') does an extremely effective job building up the eerie claustrophobic atmosphere and psychological terrors. He has an arresting visual style, and when the room reveals its true evil nature, the shock effects are both inventive and unsettling. Samuel Jackson is suitably creepy in what turns out to be a bit part, but the movie is practically a one-man show for John Cusack, who burrows down deep into the character's personality as the cocky and snide writer is forced to confront the demons of his past. It's a very good performance, and the movie would fall utterly apart if he didn't carry it so capably.
During most of its length, the film pulls all the elements together to overcome the more hokey or derivative aspects of its story. Sadly, a misjudged plot twist takes us away from the main action for a long stretch near the end, and the outcome of this diversion is far too predictable and cheesy. The movie never really recovers, and the last 15 minutes or so just seem to drag on forever. It's clear the filmmakers weren't sure how to wrap up the movie, and this Director's Cut has about 5 or 6 false endings before the credits finally come up. The finale that the director eventually settled on for this version is a little darker in tone and slightly more satisfying than the theatrical cut, but neither one works particularly well, which is a shame considering how strong the rest of the picture is.
Even so, '1408' is for the most part a smartly made little shocker that relies more on the psychology of its character than on overdone visual effects, which is a refreshing change of pace these days. Flaws aside, it's also one of the better Stephen King adaptations of recent years.
The HD DVD: Vital Disc Stats
The North American distribution rights to '1408' are held by The Weinstein Company, a studio that has been sitting out the High Definition race for the past year. Fortunately, Dutch Filmworks in the Netherlands has brought the film to both HD DVD and Blu-ray. Both discs are region-free and should function in American playback hardware (it's been reported that the bonus features on the Blu-ray version may have some compatibility issues, but everything works fine on the HD DVD).
The disc starts with an unskippable copyright warning, then jumps right to the movie without a main menu. All pop-up menus are written in English text. Dutch subtitles appear by default, but can be easily turned off. The HD DVD contains only the 113-minute Director's Cut of the film, not the 104-minute theatrical cut.
The movie is presented in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio, which seems like an odd artistic choice for such a claustrophobic story, but director Håfström makes it work, framing his shots to emphasize the isolation of the main character in his environment. The 1080p/VC-1 transfer on this Dutch disc has only one significant flaw: the opening credit text and all of the end credits appear very jaggy, as though they'd been poorly compressed. I didn't notice this problem anywhere else in the movie other than the credit text. Otherwise, the image has very impressive detail and colors, as well as rich contrasts for a nice sense of depth. Light film grain is present in some scenes (a few are grainier than others for effect), but is always well digitized and never looks unnecessarily noisy. Flesh tones may look a little yellowish in the hotel lobby and hallways, but that's clearly a result of the film's lighting in those scenes, not a video transfer flaw. Colors elsewhere are vibrant and natural.
Other than the credit text issue, '1408' has a very film-like appearance and makes for a surprisingly effective High Definition showcase.
The movie's soundtrack, available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, is also pretty darn good. The mix makes unsettling use of creepy ambient noises in the surround channels, including numerous discrete directional effects. There's also a decent amount of low-end activity in the sounds of thunder and other shock scares. Dialogue sometimes comes across a little flat, but fidelity on the whole is well represented. I wouldn't necessarily rate this among the best audio I've heard on a High-Def disc, but it gets the job done nicely and has no serious flaws.
The disc offers only removable Dutch subtitles, without any other language or subtitle options.
Aside from the theatrical cut of the film, most of the bonus features from the 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD have made their way to the HD DVD as well. While the feature is encoded with VC-1 compression, all of the supplements use AVC MPEG-4.
Also included are some trailers for other unrelated titles from the studio.
A better-than-average Stephen King adaptation, '1408' overcomes its derivative premise with strong performances and atmospheric direction, even if it does go off the rails at the end (what Stephen King story doesn't?). This Dutch import HD DVD has excellent picture and very good sound, as well as almost all of the bonus features from the 2-disc DVD. Recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.