Call 2007 cinema's renaissance year for Stephen King adaptations. Not since the glory days of the early '80s had we seen many decent flicks based on the author's work and then, all of a sudden, last year brought us not one but two noteworthy entries in the King cinematic canon. There was Frank Darabont's 'The Mist,' a well-made if divisive box office disappointment, and '1408,' Mikael Hafstrom's equally well-crafted sleeper which managed to better entice audiences by balancing both PG-13-friendly spookhouse thrills with the more heady themes explored by King's original short story. Though both films have their fans and detractors, thanks to the success of '1408,' King seems once again to be a hot commodity at the box office.
Adhering fairly closely to the basic structure of King's story, '1408' stars John Cusack as Mike Enslin, a cynical writer who has made his name writing cheesy "paranormal investigation" books about supposedly haunted locations. But when this skeptic insists on staying in the reportedly haunted room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel against the grave warnings of the hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson), he soon finds his hardened beliefs tested. As the room attempts to exert its power, Enslin begins to descend into madness, eventually unraveling into his own past memories of his failed marriage and the death of his young daughter.
'1408' benefits from the fact that King's original work was not so much a full-fledged story as simply a detailed event. (Cusack goes into the room, scary stuff happens, and the climax comes quite quickly.) That gives co-screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski ample room to expand the narrative scope and complexities of character without sacrificing any portions of King's structure. The result makes '1408' the rare King adaptation that's both faithful to its source but also better developed, allowing the film to deliver an emotional impact that's unexpected, rather than just come across as another pale, inferior imitation.
Cusack is the film's center. It's one of his best performances in years, with the actor neither condescending to the material nor treating it as camp. What works best is his understanding of the character's arc -- he strikes a perfect note of world-weary cynicism in the early scenes, which makes his eventual submission to the supernatural elements believable. If Alexander and Karaszewski get too heavy-handed and maudlin in the third act (introducing a number of familial subplots that play as pure melodrama), Cusack still pulls it off. And even more so in the 112-minute Director's Cut included here, which further fleshes out Mike's relationship with his father, which is only gingerly touched upon in the original theatrical cut (though this extended take's much darker climax cuts some of Cusack's best, concluding moments that were highlights of the theatrical version).
If '1408' suffers, it is from a runtime that stretches the material a bit too thin. Mike's initial foray into the hotel room is wonderfully modulated with nail-biting tension, but as Hafstrom begins to lay on the seemingly-endless big production setpieces, the increasingly over-the-top practical effects (which are admittedly well-realized) soon grow tiresome and repetitive. The fantastical elements also begin to detract from the human element, and seeing the effects of room 1408 portrayed so literally (the collapsing walls, freak snowstorms, etc.) is simply less chilling than the more subtle early scenes, which had to rely only on Cusack's performance and our own imaginations for effect. Though '1408' is far from a bloody gorefest, it may still be a bit too visceral for its own good.
Still, '1408' remains one of the better King adaptations in recent memory. It serves the story well, adds additional layers of emotional depth, and is slickly produced. Add to that a fine performance by Cusack, and you have that rarity -- a classy Stephen King film that both frightens the senses and excites the intellect. '1408' may be too long for its own good, and a bit too literal in its scares at times, but it's a room well worth checking into.
'1408' is the second Blu-ray title I've reviewed from Genius/Weinstein Co. after 'The Mist,' which is hitting high-def on the same day (and is also, coincidentally, based on a Stephen King short story). My reaction to this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is similar to one I had for Sony's 'Talladega Nights,' which I found akin to watching a movie through a pair of polarized glasses. I really didn't enjoy the experience.
The transfer's blacks appear washed out. The mid-grayscale is too bright, and contrast is hot, which flattens the image considerably. The darkest scenes fare the best, with at least a glimmer of true depth. The color palette is seriously whacked out, too -- oranges and blues are way pumped up to distracting levels, leaving fleshtones rather unattractive and washing out most of the other primaries (reds in particular fare the worst).
Visible detail can't really shine through the muck. The image appears soft and unrefined, as well as plugged up due to the heavy hues. Shadow delineation is fine, though that is largely thanks to the too-bright blacks. The encode itself is very solid, with the pristine print not marred by edge enhancement or obvious compression artifacts. Minor grain and some noise are present throughout. '1408' is watchable, but certainly no reference disc.
If I found this disc's video lacking, the audio sure impressed. Genius offers both Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit) and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (640kbps) options, both in English. This is a very immersive and effective presentation.
Right from the opening frames, the rear soundfield is active and full-bodied. Ambiance is strong and consistent, with appropriately spooky uses of rain, echo, minor sounds etc. Shock effects are also nicely done, with the full frequency range exploited for the maximum jolt. Low bass suitably supports the horror elements, and dynamic range is spacious and expansive. Dialogue is well-placed in the center channel and always distinct. '1408' may not hit you over the head with shrieking violins, but it's sublime precisely because it is so subtle.
Genius/Weinstein Co. has supplied a solid suite of extras for '1408,' one which replicates the previous two-disc DVD release. Note, however, that the original theatrical cut of the film is missing here -- only the unrated version is provided (though the theatrical ending is offered as a supplement). Video quality is strong, with all materials presented in 1080i/VC-1 with optional English subtitles.
'1408' is one of the better recent Stephen King adaptations, nicely fleshing out a short story with additional narrative depth and character complexities. This blu-ray is a bit more middling, however, with video that disappoints. At least the audio is sharp and the supplements extensive. I still can't recommend this disc for an outright purchase due to the weak video, but it's definitely worth a rental if you're a fan of the genre, or King.