Monday, May 25, 2009

Set the Thermostat to "Evil"

Showtime via DVR

I feel almost embarrassed to still be a hopeless horror movie addict in 2009; the genre has been in a precipitous decline since the early 80's. Many factors, related and unrelated, have dragged the scare flick down -- CGI, those accursed Avid machines, video games, Paul W.S. Anderson, Nine Inch Nails, the MPAA, The Blair Witch Project -- but I think what's really done horror films in is the slight drop in the median age to which they are nowadays targeted. Even so recently as when I was in high school, the "R" rating still meant something. The local video store wouldn't rent them to kids, the theaters checked ID, and my parents quite carefully set up our cable lineup so we didn't get the really juicy channels. So for the sake of appearances at least, the horror movies of the 80's and (especially) the 70's were given adult (meaning grown-up, not pornographic) themes and satirical twists. I mean, say what you will about the meandering narratives and lo-fi effects of Dawn of the Dead or Scanners or Re-Animator, all of those movies had points to make, about commercialism, paranoia, the nature of death and loss, so on and so forth. I mean, mostly they were about guts being ripped out and heads exploding, but there was a little depth involved.

Nowadays thanks to automatic movie rental kiosks, the Internet, digital cable, satellite and everything else, there's no use in trying to keep your 14-year-old from seeing My Bloody Valentine 3D if he sets his mind to it. In trying to make their films appeal centrally to teenagers instead of twentysomethings, horror moviemakers have sucked the marrow out of the genre. Gore movies -- "horror" hardly enters into it, and perhaps significantly (in this godless modern age) the supernatural has become a far less common plot element -- are more mechanical than scary. If you're a rich American, to whom would you go if you wanted to torture some co-eds to death? What's the best way to remove the top part of someone's face from the bottom using only remaindered dental equipment? How will Elisha Cuthbert react if you lock her in a cage for two hours? These aren't really deep questions. What anyone's motivation might be for doing these repulsive things, no one considers.

Thank heavens for Stephen King. Not because it's always a good idea to make movies from his stories, even though Hollywood sure thinks it is. The range of filmed adaptations of his work stretches from stone-cold pantheon classics (Shining, Carrie, obviously Shawshank though it's not horror) to disasters that are so bad and so detached from the source material that they're kind of hilarious (the dreadful TV "Stand" miniseries, the film of Maximum Overdrive that King himself directed). But King absolutely never starts rolling a page into his typewriter until he has some kind of relevant hook, some kind of real-world comment that he can make by blowing something we can all relate to into massively overblown proportions. In fact, King's worst potboilers usually occur when he comes up with a great premise and then kind of gets lazy. Dreamcatcher was a terrible book and a worse movie, but buried in the novel's narrative was some of the author's most incisive, personal writing (his lead character in that book suffered the precise sort of car accident that King himself did famously several years ago). And he's written a bunch like Cellular or Thinner where the premise is so perfect that the actual reading of the book is kind of anticlimactic -- Stephen King is the best hardcover inner-sleeve note writer in the history of literature.

1408 is a terrific King adaptation, the best in years, in no small part because the plot is for King pretty trite and unoriginal. John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a professional haunted-hotel debunker who finally catches a live one. There's nothing technical about the storytelling that you haven't seen a zillion times before. There's Vertigo double-pan shots where hallways get way longer than they were originally; Ringu-like ghosts that look like bad TV reception; even a good old-fashioned blood fountain or two. But these proven devices are scary in 1408 while they would just be interesting or momentarily kinda neat in a less intelligently made film. That's because the movie takes an unusually long time with its setup. By the time the door slams shut and Cusack is alone in Room 1408 of New York City's Dolphin Hotel, we've seen a series of unhurried scenes that establish his character's psychological state. We think we know what his weaknesses are, and that makes the anticipation while we're waiting to see what awful thing the room is going to subject him to next suspenseful. "Suspense" and "horror" used to be two sides of the same coin, before George A. Romero, before "suspense" movies meant somebody like Jeremy Irons furrowing his brow a lot and "horror" meant entrails, entrails, entrails.

King is working with themes he knows and loves here: the nature and process of writers, the effect of a child's death on the surviving family, the terrible burden of potential. This last is particularly interesting because in Cusack, 1408 director Mikael Håfström has picked an actor who's on exactly the same wavelength as King's character. Cusack loves playing guys whose charm and natural ease are their worst enemies, passive types who get much of what they want without trying and consequently never learn to try. Rob in High Fidelity, Martin in Grosse Pointe Blank, even Buck Weaver in Eight Men Out -- guys who grew old, miserable, and bitter without ever taking any responsibility for their own happiness. Cusack is a master at projecting his characters' flaws onto those he interacts with through his peevishness, condescension, and sarcasm. What's fascinating about 1408 is that except for a few brief scenes with Sam Jackson, for the most part his foil in this film isn't a person but a set.

And what a set it is! Room 1408 at the Dolphin has the most personality of any horror set I've seen since the first (and best) half-hour of Evil Dead 2. Cleverly, it communicates through universally recognizable hotel room inconveniences -- unfamiliar radio stations, robotically uncaring disembodied front desk voices on the phone, annoying unspecified noises from the next room over, inconsistent wireless Internet signals. The next time I get a hotel room, I'm covering all the tacky art nailed to the walls with towels before going to sleep.

It's a one-man show to a rare degree for a mid-budget studio picture, which is a good thing -- Cusack can get lazy sometimes, and you've rarely seen him this physical or ambiguously shaded. The bit players are well-chosen for what it's worth. Jackson obviously cashes checks and snaps necks in his five minutes of screen time. Mary McCormack and Jasmine Jessica Anthony are effective in their tricky, underexposed roles as Enslin's estranged wife and deceased daughter. Tony Shalhoub has a cameo as the opposite of his "Monk" character, the levelheaded superior who has to keep the high-strung Enslin functional and happy. Keep your eyes peeled for Senator Gray Davis from "The Wire" as the hotel handyman who won't cross the threshold of Enslin's room. "Sheeeeeee-itttt, Lloyd Dobler, you can fix the heat your damn self."

Like most ghost stories, 1408 has some plot holes bigger than the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Some of this stuff I guess you can chalk up to the tricky task of making a short story into a feature-length film. Lke why does Enslin go for his cell phone and his laptop only after climbing out on a ledge 13 stories high in an attempt to escape? The director recycles a couple of apparitions enough times that we think there's some kind of logic to their appearance, but then as the film goes on (particularly after the obligatory False Dawn) the rules start to get distractingly blurry. There's one random monster Enslin encounters in the heating duct that seems imported from a totally different movie, partly because we actually get to see it full-on for a moment -- what you can't see clearly is always way scarier, and this movie studiously avoids full-blown protracted gore. Also, Håfström occasionally cuts out of Enslin's perspective during hallucinations -- one minute he'll imagine himself with his hands around Jackson's throat, and the next he'll be beating the stuffing out of the hotel minibar. I don't think this is the right choice. For us to feel the fear, pressure, and panic Enslin is feeling, we shouldn't be released from his reality at all. Also, nearly everything else that happens suggests that whatever is happening in the room is, in fact, happening -- Enslin may have been transported physically to another dimension, but although the rules of physics and death don't work the same there, at least it's pretty safe to assume from what we're shown that if there was another person in the room at the same time, they would see/experience exactly the same things. Thus, the perspective the camera is showing during these few misguided shots is invalid. Go, film theory!

Not so much a plot hole as a deliberate stylistic choice, no explanation is given for what makes the evil hotel room evil. Jackson doesn't have a speech about the hotel's founder being Aleister Crowley's lover or the Illuminati instilling the bathroom fixtures with the essence of Cthulu. This is the right decision though, because 1408's conclusion is about the restoration of Mike Enslin's faith. If you've read your Oolon Colluphid, you know proof denies faith.

No comments:

Post a Comment