'1408' is standard horror, but effective

The film "1408," based on the Stephen King short story of the same name, is a container movie, meaning the bulk of the narrative is contained, so to speak, in one location.

It's a classic template, often used by Hollywood screenwriters when scripting thrillers such as "Panic Room" with Jodie Foster &

mom and daughter, trapped in a safe room (a castle keep of sorts), in a three-story brownstone in New York City, watching home invaders on closed circuit television as they try and break into the keep.

Of course, there is the malevolent house where the protagonists become unwitting victims of paranormal events: the decaying Victorian mansion that is inhabited by dark spirits (e.g., a family was killed inexplicably on the premises early in the last century), or the house/hotel/hotel room which itself possesses an evil energy that begins to transform the people who move in. How often have we seen the happy family (two kids, optimistic parents) pull up in front of an abandoned, three-story house, eager to begin restoring it. Or, in the superb film "The Shining" agree to be the winter caretakers of a very creepy hotel. Look for the moment when one of the family members looks up at the small attic window and sees, ever so briefly, a pasty-white face staring back.

It's standard horror, but also very effective, predicated on the assumption that being unable to escape a confined space taps into latent fears which we all possess.

One of the most effective uses of moviegoers' latent claustrophobia and their belief (however grudging) in the paranormal, are films that take the audience deep into unexplored caves. This is not National Geographic, hence it soon becomes obvious that the spelunkers are not alone and there is no easy way out. The most recent example of a solid cave-container film is "Descent." Six women, experienced, athletic, loaded with sophisticated climbing gear, head down into a cavernous hole about which little is known. Predictably, they lose their way and they lose control. There is something or someone else in the cave with them and we know it's not going to end well.

Other choices for containers are basements, airplane cabins at 30,000 feet, enormous attics, and rooms designed to hold a victim.

Taking the genre to its extreme is the scenario wherein a person is buried alive and the game clock is ticking. Air is in increasingly short supply, the box is covered with six feet of dirt, and that one small light (cigarette lighter, flashlight), used to ward off the terrifying darkness, begins to fail. The tension can be all but unbearable.

In the case of "1408," Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a writer of books and a successful debunker of haunted bed and breakfasts, has come to stay in room 1408, located on the fourteenth floor of the Dolphin Hotel in New York City.

When Enslin arrives to check in, he is severely warned off by the hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson). He is told that more than 50 people have either committed suicide in the room or jumped out of the window; the room has been closed to patrons for years. Nevertheless, he insists he wants to spend just one night in the room &

time enough to prove that the stories are pure fabrication.

Enslin prevails, is given a key, and smugly enters the room, inspects the layout, and finds all benign. Before long, however, enough creepy things begin to happen that he concludes that the room is more than plaster, furniture and fixtures. When he grabs his bag and tries to exit, he can't. The door is locked and the door knob comes off in his hand. He's trapped. And so begins the longest night of his life.

Of course, you have to suspend your disbelief when watching such films, and "1408" is no different. The effectiveness of the movie depends on how much jeopardy we believe Enslin is in, and do we care. Regrettably, for all of its special effects, and some top drawer acting by Cusack, the film never feels as if the stakes are very high. Naturally, Enslin is put through the horror spin cycle and pummeled in countless ways. But none of it ever seems truly scary, and the reason could be that the source of evil is not a person or thing, but a room. A room, to be sure, that torments Enslin psychologically and physically while holding him captive. But 1408, the room, fails to muster the high creep factor which would have resulted had there been someone else in the room with him. Think of "Descent" without the beings hidden in the dark cul-de-sacs that threaten the climbers. You'd have, in essence, a cave with attitude; it wouldn't work.

For fans of the genre, "1408" will be a must see. For those who enjoy a solid movie that terrifies, raising goosebumps and hair, this film will likely disappoint.

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