A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this horror film is more about psychology than gore, though the main character, Mike, does sustain some bloody injuries from the various attacks on him (flying furniture, collapsing architecture, and more). He also suffers increasing emotional distress and irrationality, remembering both his young daughter, who died of a disease (scenes show the wasting girl and arguments between her parents), and his resentful, despairing, wheelchair-bound father. The nightmare-style narrative is illogical and sometimes disturbing, including ghosts, loud noises, jump scenes, and grotesque images of insects and bloody corpses. Mike drinks frequently and smokes once (very dramatically). Language includes one use of "f--k" and plenty of other words: "s--t," "ass," "bitch," etc.
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What's the story?
Stephen King makes a good living writing about scary things and places. He also writes frequently about what it feels like to write about scary things and places. 1408, based on one of King's short stories, is sort of a mix of both. Mike (John Cusack) is depressed about what he does for a living. He writes cheesy, repetitive "ghostly" travel books (10 Haunted Hotels, 10 Haunted Lighthouses); he researches them by spending nights in supposedly haunted rooms, then produces rote manuscripts that appeal to unimaginative readers (his disdain for his audience is revealed during a public reading attended by a few dimwitted fans). Mike's frustration and cynicism come to a head when an anonymous postcard writer challenges him to stay in room 1408 of Manhattan's Dolphin Hotel -- which has produced more than 50 corpses over the decades. When the management refuses to let him, Mike gets curious, eventually muscling his way in via legal threats and generally obnoxious behavior. He's warned off by earnest manager Mr. Olin (a very subdued Samuel L. Jackson), who insists it's not because he cares about Mike but because he doesn't "want to clean up the mess." But Mike thinks he's seen it all ("I know that ghoulies and ghosties don't exist") and takes the room.
Is it any good?
If you've read or seen The Shining, you've probably seen it all, too -- or at least what goes on in this room. Considerably more claustrophobic than that story's Overlook Hotel -- it is, after all, set in just one room -- 1408 nonetheless deploys the same gimmicks: cracked, bloody walls; babies crying; ghosts in emotional disarray; and flashbacks to distressing personal history (in this case, Mike's daughter, dead of a disease that makes her very pale and dark-eyed). Mike actually feels bad about a number of family traumas, including having abandoned his wife Lily (Mary McCormack) in order to drown his misery in sad-sack drinking, beach-bumming, and lazy writing.
The room locks Mike inside and then proceeds to bring all of his roiling emotions to the surface, sometimes very cleverly but more often very tediously (a window smashes his hand, the room turns hot and cold, the walls collapse, the room changes temporal dimensions, etc.). The room's most deliciously perverse (and always jarring) assault is the clock radio's auto-turn-on, which repeatedly blares the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun." But even better, when Mike looks out a window to a room across the street hoping to signal for help, he sees a mirror version of himself -- dressed differently, unspeaking, apparently from another time. Unable to communicate with himself, Mike discovers that he is, after all, quite stunningly alone. Such moments grant Cusack a chance to disintegrate subtly rather than raging about in a spooky-horror-filmy fashion, and he takes full advantage of the opportunity.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the enduring appeal of ghost stories and haunted house tales. Why are they so popular? Do you think strong emotions can continue to "occupy" a place? How does the movie make room 1408 seem scary before viewers even see the inside? How does Mike's past become part of the room's arsenal of disturbing imagery? Families can also discuss why people like being scared at the movies. What makes some horror movies better at accomplishing this than others?
- In theaters: June 21, 2007
- On DVD or streaming: October 2, 2007
- Cast: John Cusack, Mary McCormack, Samuel L. Jackson
- Director: Mikael Hafstrom
- Studio: MGM/UA
- Genre: Horror
- Run time: 94 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic material including disturbing sequences of violence and terror, frightening images and language.
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