Thursday, October 18, 2007

1408



Some thoughts on Stephen King's story "1408" and it's movie adaptation. Warning: some spoilerish material follows.

1. The movie starts off strongly, but founders a little over halfway through. It doesn't recover. I wanted to use that as a lead-in to an observation about about Stephen King's work in general - I often find the set-ups extremely compelling and the conclusions extremely unsatisfying - but that's not quite fair in this case, since the original story is solid all the way through.

2. One of the movie's two major additions to the short story is the backstory involving the death of Mike Enslin's child and his subsequent estrangement from his wife. I can understand why the screenwriters wanted to add this in. For one thing, it's similar enough to the set-up of other King stories that it doesn't feel completely out-of-place. And it probably seemed to be a lot grabbier than the central issue at stake in the short story. From my POV, that's a little unfortunate: while it would be harder to dramatize, the "theme" of the short story - it is a dangerous illusion that for writers to feel they can remain detached and unaffected by what they're writing about, regardless of their skepticism/sense of irony/clinical eye/etc. - is a little less run-of-the-mill. There are already a lot of spooky movies about people dealing with the loss of loved ones.

3. In my post on Insomnia, I suggested that King is best when he's writing characters that are most like him. I think that holds up here, for the most part. I wonder though if he doesn't overplay - just a bit - the whole "Artistic Anxiety/Defensiveness of the Schlock Writer"-angle. I know this is also one of King's recurring issues - he usually doesn't develop it enough for me to call it a "theme" - but, at some point, you'd think he'd get over it. IMO, this stuff plays a lot better in the movie, because there it's softened and grounded by John Cusack's performance.

4. I think John Cusack is really good as long as the movie stays good - he brings just the right amount of burnt out skepticism to bear - but doesn't have anywhere to take the performance once things start falling apart. Samuel L. Jackson - seemingly miscast based on the way King wrote the character - gives one of those pitch-perfect B-movie performances that he seems to be able to knock out of the park (if I may mix my metaphors here), a la Deep Blue Sea, xXx, or Unbreakable.

5. The movie felt too long, even though it's 94 minute running time is by no means excessive. My friend suggested it would have been better as a Twilight Zone episode: I'm a little hipper than he is so I say a Masters of Horror episode. The other major addition the movie makes to the short story is its third act, which is almost completely unnecessary. It does give us one great effect/image: when John Cusack goes into the post office and the guys come in and start smashing through the walls, revealing that it was all a set "built" inside the room.

6. While in the room, the filmmakers add a number of "gotcha" scares that seemed to be taken from The Grudge and/or The Fog. These weren't that original and I don't think they fit with the psychological horror that King is trying to get across in the short story, but I do have to say that I was scared by the chase through the air ducts.

7. I liked the short story, but I thought it could have been a bit more formally rigorous. I hardly ever think this while reading Stephen King - that's not why I read him, after all - but the way he has set up this story - with the minicorder's tape as the only evidence of what happened in the room - seems to call out for something along those lines. Like riffing on Lovecraft's standard narrative techniques: instead of telling the story by switching willy-nilly between Mike Enslin's subjective perspective of his experience in the room and the objective recording of what happened on the tape, split them up, or, maybe even base everything on just what can be heard on the tape, with the gaps filled in (piecemeal) by Mike's post-room recollections or someone else's investigative efforts.

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