Carrie (2013) review

carrie-poster05“You will know her name,” the posters have been telling us for I don’t know how long – a year? or is it two? – as if we did not already know Carrie White from Stephen King’s novel and Brian DePalma’s 1976 film version (not to mention a made-for-television remake). This assumption of cluelessness on our part did not bode well, suggesting that the filmmakers themselves might be more than a bit clueless about the challenges of remaking a classic property. Unfortunately, this ill omen is mostly born out in the new version of CARRIE, which is not nearly as bad as it might have been and yet never provides a compelling version for revisiting the well-remembered story.
In fact, CARRIE is almost a textbook case study in the pitfalls of remakes. The script for the 1976 film, adapted by Lawrence D. Cohen (who receives co-credit here) boiled King’s overwritten novel down to its essence, omitting superfluous material and a padded ending that stretched the book well past its climax. The dilemma  facing the new filmmakers was essentially whether to stick to the previous adaptation or incorporate more elements of the book; they tried to split the difference, mostly following the old scenario while reinstating some parts of the novel.
The result is that this version of CARRIE includes both the essential elements – and some non-essential elements, just for good measure. Their presence here serves best to remind us why they were not included the first time out. Do we really need to know that Mrs. White thought her pregnancy was a cancer, right until the moment she gave birth? Or that Sue Snell is pregnant with Tommy Ross’s child?* Do either of these elements change our understanding of Carrie White’s story in a fundamental way?
On top of this, the casting of the new film is problematic. Judy Greer is a fine substitute for Betty Buckely as gym teacher Ms. Desjardin, but the rest of the supporting case looks like a bunch of also-rans: they’re not bad, but they are not distinctive. Ansel Elgort eventually warms up as Tommy, but Gabriella Wilde and Portia Doubleday never manage to etch distinctive portraits of the the good-hearted Sue and the vindictive Chris. (The innovation here is that the hair color of the characters has been reversed: unlike Amy Irving and Nancy Allen in the original, the good girl is now blonde, and the bad girl is brunette.)

Carrie (2013)
You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

In the title role, Chloë Grace Moretz makes a game effort, but her acting skills cannot hide the fact that she is badly miscast. Unlike Sissy Spacek, who figuratively disappeared into the role, Moretz is hampered by screen persona that includes the homicidal Hit Girl from KICK-ASS and the homicidal vampire from LET ME IN. She is too obviously pretty, and looks too much like a confident young woman with her act together, to convince us that she is a shy introvert victimized by her peers. When she dons her gown to attend the prom, any sense of transformation is lost: we are not seeing a new side of Carrie; we are simply seeing Moretz the way she has always looked to us – only the clothing has changed.
As Carrie’s mother, Julianne Moore would seem to be the only actress with even a chance of approaching Piper Laurie’s Oscar-nominated turn; alas, the film simply cannot elevate the character to the stature achieved in the old film. Part of the problem is the passing of time, which the filmmakers overlook (except insofar as adding texting, tweets, and YouTube videos to the script). Back in 1976, it might have been somewhat radical to portray a devout Christian as a religious nut; now, it’s simply old-hat – a safe target.
Surprisingly, in spite of the remake’s problems, Stephen King’s story is strong enough to shine through in the middle portion. You actually do get a little bit involved as Carrie starts to see a ray of hope in her life, and the film becomes entertaining if not essential.
But in the end CARRIE cannot pay off. The demarcation line between a great horror film and every other kind of horror film – good, bad, or indifferent – is defined by DePalma’s version, which achieves the almost unthinkable. When we pay to see a horror movie, we pay to see the good stuff – the horror – and we can’t wait for it to appear on screen. Yet, in the 1976 film, when Carrie and Tommy are crowned prom queen and king, you cannot help wishing – to the point where you almost believe it – that the Chris’s cruel prank will not go off as planned, and the bucket of pig’s blood will not destroy Carrie White’s dreams, turning her into a vengeful monster with lethal consequences for her classmates.
In CARRIE (2013), however, you really do find yourself wishing the bucket would fall and kick things into high gear; the film never makes you feel the sense of tragedy that would make you yearn for an alternate cut in which everything works out for its troubled teen heroine.
The mayhem, when it ensues, is marred by some CGI hijinx, which ups the ante on the level of destruction but lacks the visceral punch of the old film’s mechanical effects. Also, director Kimberly Peirce simply cannot orchestrate the chaos as well as DePalma, and the film suffers from blunting its horrors, killing off the complicit characters while letting the innocent live (as in the book, but not the DePalma film, Desjardin survives).
Chloe-Moretz-in-Carrie-2013-Movie-Image4It certainly doesn’t help that Moretz acts rather like a conductor at a symphony, waving her hands around as if using magic powers. Peirce should have reminded her that Carrie’s telekinetic powers are mental, requiring no prestidigitation. Portraying psychic powers on screen has always been difficult (how can the actor convey mental effort?), but this particular solution ill serves the film and the character. It makes Carrie seem too deliberate in her actions, when what we should be seeing is an uncontrollable rage that erupts on almost reflexive level. Yes, Carrie is getting even with those who humiliated her, but inside she’s not so different from the rest of us; fortunately, our explosions of mental rage usually dissipate without killing dozens of people, thanks to our lack of telekinetic powers. Making Carrie more deliberate in her destructive actions turns her more into a movie monster, making her less like one of us.
After that it’s all downhill, as the familiar mother-daughter relationship plays itself out, without proper context: the statue of St. Sebastian is missing, which undercuts the irony of Mrs. White’s being speared to death, and Moore’s last gasp hardly compares to Laurie’s orgasmic final exhalation. And just to top it all off, the filmmakers realize that they cannot recreate the original film’s memorable last-scene gotcha, so they substitute something else. It’s a shot that perfectly encapsulates the remake: it cannot recreate the greatness of the original, but when it tries to do something different, it is simply not as good.

  • Strictly speaking, Sue merely worries she is pregnant in the novel, because her period is late. I suppose it’s possible that she really was pregnant, and when her period returns, its symptomatic of a spontaneous abortion, but I’m not sure that was King’s intention.

CARRIE (October 18, 2013). Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen and Robert Aguirre-Sacasa, based on the novel by Stephen King. Cast: Julianne Moore, Chloe Grace Moretz, Gabriella Wilde, Portia Doubleday, Alex Russell, Zoe Belkin, Ansel Elgort, Samantha Weinstein, Karissa Strain, Judy Greer, Katie Strain, Barry Shabaka Henlsey. Rated R. 100 minutes.

E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL's Dee Wallace: The CFQ Interview

I Said Pass the #@%*! Potatoes: Dee Wallace lets the witch show through the homey facade in HANSEL AND GRETEL.
I Said Pass the #@%*! Potatoes: Dee Wallace lets the witch show through the homey facade in HANSEL AND GRETEL.

It’s our first Spielberg veteran here at CFQi, and a good one, too. Dee Wallace probably reached her greatest audience as the progressive but put-upon suburban mom of E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, but she had previously developed her genre chops in two landmark horror titles: Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES and Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING, and most recently took her career in a darkly satirical direction with her work in the Asylum’s gory, fractured fairy tale, HANSEL AND GRETEL. Our conversation with Dee was frank and incisive, taking in a discussion of Spielberg’s personal investment in his films, the emotional complications of doing explicit sex scenes, and what it’s like breaking into the business on a low-budget horror film. Click on the player to hear the show.


Carrie in theatres October 18

Sony Pictures Releasing distributes this horror remake from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, based on the novel by Stephen King. Chloe Grace Moretz replaces Sissy Spacek as Carrie White, and Julianne Moroe steps in for Piper Laurie as Carrie’s mother, Margaret. Kimberly Peirce directed, from a screenplay adapted by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Judy Greer, Gabriella Wilde, Portia Doubleday, and Alex Russell are also in the cast.
The teaser trailer suggests that the obliteration of the town (seen in the novel and the 2002 tele-film but not in the 1976 film directed by Brian DePalma) has been retained, which should increase the opportunity for on-screen mayhem and spectacular special effects. The potential pitfall in this gambit – and the reason the DePalma film works so well – is that Carrie’s rage is focused on the classmates who humiliate her; her revenge comes at the prom, and anything that follows is over-egging the blood-pudding.
Sony Pictures originally announced a March 15, 2013 release date, then in January pushed the film back to October 18.

Horror Film Ratings & Conversations with Michael Cricthon: CFQ Round Table Podcast 2:24.3

Carmen Electra is about to lose a breast implant in this scene from the R-rated SCARY MOVIE.
Carmen Electra is about to lose a breast implant in this scene from the R-rated SCARY MOVIE.

This time out, the Cinefantastique Round Table Podcast – the podcast of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films – devotes itself to two in-depth conversations. The first focuses on the subject of the MPAA ratings system and how it impacts horror movies, with their depictions of graphic violence. The second, inspired by the new book, Conversations with Michael Cricthon, takes a look at the best selling author’s contribution to the science fiction genre in literature on on film. CFQ editor Steve Biodrowski (whose interview with Crichton regarding JURASSIC PARK is in the book) is joined by San Francisco correspondent Lawrence French and New York correspondent Dan Persons.
Also this week: Farewell to James Arness; James Cameron on the AVATAR sequels (not a trilogy); Pierce Brosnan in Stephen King’s BAG OF BONES; and Ron Howard on THE DARK TOWER.


Supernal Dreams: Boris Karloff on THRILLER

Image Entertainment’s new 14-DVD set of 67 episodes of THRILLER is quite a marvelous treat, and it fits in perfectly with Cinefantastique’s celebration of  movies released in that seminal year for terror, 1960.
Among the impressive authors who wrote episodes for THRILLER were Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Donald S. Sandford and Barre Lyndon.  The directors included such experienced hands as John Brahm, Laszlo Benedek, Ted Post, Douglas Heyes, Ray Milland, Herschel Daugherty and Ida Lupino.
Yet, what I find truly amazing about the series is the cornucopia of great Hollywood character actors who were featured on the show. Actors who were never “stars.” As Boris Karloff notes, “Isn’t it quite wonderful to use actors instead of ‘stars’ ” Indeed, it is and Thriller featured among many others, these fine actors, nearly all of whom had important roles in at least one classic horror movie:

  • John Carradine, Torin Thatcher, Beverly Garland, Vladimir Sokoloff and Martita Hunt
  • Jack Carson, Estelle Winwood, Everett Sloane, Edward Andrews and Mary Astor
  • Jeanette Nolan, Guy Rolfe, Judith Evelyn, John Williams and Hazel Court
  • Jane Greer, Henry Jones, Oscar Homolka, Warren Oates and Patrica Medina
  • Otto Kruger, Nancy Kelly, Eduardo Cianelli, Richard Carlson and Jo Van Fleet
  • Sidney Blackmer, William Windom, George Kennedy, Ann Todd and Henry Daniell

All of these people were truly wonderful character actors, but none of them were ever really “stars” so it was no surprise to find not one of them listed among the 20 actors featured on the back of the THRILLER box set.  I guess the PR “experts” think Donna Douglas, Tom Poston and Natalie Schafer are more exciting to genre fans, than John Carradine, Mary Astor and Henry Daniell!
Of course, since Henry Daniell nearly stole the show from Boris Karloff when the two actors appeared together in Val Lewton’s THE BODY SNATCHER, I’d like to make a special note of Daniell’s work on THRILLER here.
Mr. Daniell made five memorable appearances on Thriller,  playing among others, Count Cagliostro, Vicar Weatherford and Squire Moloch.  Sadly, Daniell and Karloff were not reunited in any episode of THRILLER, but since both Karloff and Daniell appeared in five episodes,  it’s interesting to note that Daniell’s episodes are of better quality than Karloff’s!  That certainly doesn’t mean the five episodes Karloff appeared in were bad, simply that most of them were less exciting than such classics at The Cheaters and The Well of Doom.

Boris Karloff in "The Incredible Dr. Markesan"
Boris Karloff in "The Incredible Dr. Markesan"

Actually, all of the five episodes Karloff appeared in were quite good. They included, The Prediction, The Premature Burial, The Last of the Sommervilles, Dialogues with Death and The Incredible Doktor Markesan. Dr. Markesan was beautifully directed by Robert Florey, who ironically, had been scheduled to direct Frankenstein before he was replaced by James Whale. If  Florey had directed Frankenstein, it’s quite possible he might easily have cast an actor other than Karloff as the monster!
To introduce Boris Karloff’s comments on THRILLER, here are some of Stephen King’s remarks from his book Danse Macabre. King calls Thriller the best horror series ever made for TV, but in reading his comments, anyone with knowledge of the genre may notice the staggering number of  factual mistakes he makes, which tend to mar his otherwise  intriguing observations: 
Probably the best horror series ever put on TV was Thriller. It ran on NBC from September of 1960 until the summer of 1962—really only two seasons plus reruns. It was a period before television began to face up to an increasing barrage of criticism about its depiction of violence, a barrage that really began with the JFK assassination, grew heavier following the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King and finally caused the medium to dissolve into a sticky syrup of situation comedies—history may record that dramatic television finally gave up the ghost and slid down the tubes with a hearty cry of “Na-noo, na-noo!”
The contemporaries of Thriller were also weekly bloodbaths; the time of The Untouchables, starring Robert Stack as the unflappable Eliot Ness and featuring the gruesome deaths of hoodlums without number (1959-1963); Peter Gunn (1958-1961); and Cain’s Hundred (1961-1962), to name just a few. It was TV’s violent era. As a result, after a slow first thirteen weeks, Thriller was able to become something other than the stock imitation of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that it was apparently meant to be (early episodes dealt with cheating husbands trying to hypnotize their wives into walking over high cliffs, poisoning Aunt Martha to inherit her fortune so that the gambling debts could be paid off, and all that tiresome sort of thing) and took on a tenebrous life of its own. For the brief period of its run between January of 1961 and April of 1962—perhaps fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes—it really was one of a kind, and its like was never seen on TV again.
Thriller was an anthology-format show (as all of the supernatural-terror TV programs which have enjoyed even a modicum of success have been) hosted by Boris Karloff. Karloff had appeared on TV before, after the Universal horror wave of the early to mid-thirties finally ran weakly out in that series of comedies in the late forties. This program, telecast on the fledgling ABC-TV network, had a brief run in the autumn of 1949. It was originally titled Starring Boris Karloff, fared no better following a title change to Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff, and was canceled. In feeling and tone, however, it was startlingly similar to Thriller, which came along eleven years later.
…Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run, and not in the best of health; he suffered from a chronically bad back and had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932. He no longer starred in all the programs—many of the guest stars on the Thriller program were nonentities who went on to become full-fledged nobodies (one of those guest stars, Reggie Nalder, went on to play the vampire Barlow in the CBS-TV film version of ‘Salem’s Lot)—but fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (“The Strange Door,” for instance). The old magic was still there, still intact. Lugosi might have finished his career in misery and poverty but Karloff, despite a few embarrassments like Frankenstein 1970, went out as he came in:  as a gentleman.
Produced by William Frye, Thriller was the first television program to discover the goldmine in those back issues of Weird Tales, the memory of which had been kept alive up until then mostly in the hearts of fans, a few quickie paperback anthologies, and, of course, in those limited-edition Arkham House anthologies. One of the most significant things about the Thriller series from the standpoint of the horror fan was that it began to depend more and more upon the work of writers who had published in those “shudder pulps” …the writers who, in the period of the twenties, thirties, and forties, had begun to guide horror out of the Victorian-Edwardian ghost-story channel it had been in for so long, and toward our modern perception of what the horror story is and what it should do. Robert Bloch was represented by “The Hungry Glass,” a story in which the mirrors of an old house harbor a grisly secret; Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell,” one of the finest horror stories of our century, was adapted, and remains the favorite of many who remember Thriller with fondness. Other episodes include “A Wig for Miss DeVore,” in which a red wig keeps an actress eternally young  …until the final five minutes of the program, when she loses it—and everything else.
Miss DeVore’s lined, sunken face; the young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (“Pigeons from Hell”); the fellow who sees the faces of his fellow men and women turned into hideous monstrosities when he puts on a special pair of glasses (“The Cheaters,” from another Bloch story)—these may not have constituted fine art, but in Thriller’s run, we find those qualities coveted above all others by fans of the genre: a literate story coupled with the genuine desire to frighten viewers into spasms.
These comments were compiled from various interviews Boris Karloff has given over the years for a special tribute program I put together in 2006  for a retrospective program of  Karloff films, for which Sara Karloff was the guest of honor. The Karloff retrospective was organized in San Francisco by Gary Meyer, currently the director of the Telluride Film Festival.

How do you determine what parts you’ll accept?

BORIS KARLOFF: I am quite shameless. If I am offered a part, I’ll have a go at it. I do not go seriously around trying to pick my own parts. That is dangerous. I could fancy myself playing all sorts of things. I could read a book and think, “I would be great in that,” but I don’t think you know what is best. I think it’s much better for somebody outside of yourself to choose the part. You can always say no, if it’s a bad part.
You did a TV series in which you played quite another type or role, didn’t you?
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, yes, that was Colonel March of Scotland Yard. It was made in England during the winter of 1953 and ‘54.
Were they made for American audiences?
BORIS KARLOFF: Yes, they were made for the American market.

Did you enjoying making the TV series Thriller?

BORIS KARLOFF: Very much, indeed. The man who produced it, Bill Frye, is a very good friend of my wife and I.  I have great respect for him. I think he’s a wonderful producer and it’s a great loss to television, because he’s gone to Columbia to make films.
How did you initially get involved in doing Thriller?
thriller karloff hostBORIS KARLOFF: I just happened along, and they made this test film, which was called The Twisted Image. I do hope you won’t confuse me with the title. I wasn’t in it,  I just did the emceeing. I appear as myself, which is a frightful thing to do to an audience. They do it quite simply. I sort of intrude into the first scene and explain for example, that this nice looking couple is really in for quite a terrifying day, as you shall soon see and then I quietly slip out again. The producers then suggested that I might like to appear in some of the episodes, to which I was most agreeable, because it has been set up quite sensibly I think, as there is no set number of shows which I must do, you see. And it is quite wonderful to use actors instead of “stars”—that abused word that has ceased to have any meaning. It is a sad thing—the awful waste of potential talent you find today.

You have actually done quite a range of things outside of the horror category, haven’t you?

BORIS KARLOFF: That’s a dreadful word…  it’s the wrong word…
What term besides “horror” would you like to be applied to the films you work in?
BORIS KARLOFF: Well, I think the trapping was, in the early days when they first made these films, they were trying to get one word to express it, and they chose the word “horror.”  But the word “horror” has a connotation of revulsion. That’s what the word really means. Well the aim certainly is not to repel you, or to revolt you. It is to attract you. It’s to excite you. It’s to alarm you, perhaps. It’s excitement. I think the word should be thriller, really, or shock, but certainly not horror. So I think “Thriller” is quite the best word for this sort of thing, as the word “horror” has come to mean something else altogether. I mean, if it’s to be a horror show, they put some guts in a bucket and show it to you. That sort of thing, but a thriller, you see, can go anywhere. It’s not tied down to pure mystery, or violence, or murder. That’s one thing you won’t find on Thriller—violence for the sake of violence, shock for the sake of shock. The two skillful men who are in charge of this operation are going to prove that you can have all the suspense, mystery, adventure and excitement you could want, without resorting to violence.  I’m quite delighted with the whole thing.
You don’t live in Hollywood now, do you?
BORIS KARLOFF: No, I live in London.

In London, that’s right.

BORIS KARLOFF: And in airplanes! (Laughs).

Oh yes, commuting across the Atlantic.

BORIS KARLOFF: I flew a total of 12,000 miles (on a round-trip from London to Hollywood) to do one day’s work filming six of  the lead-in’s to Thriller. I thought it would take at least three days, and I must say I was flabbergasted that it only took one. It was filmed at Universal, on the same lot where 30 years earlier I played Frankenstein’s monster. In a way, it was like coming home again. The first season I only appeared in one episode, but it was a little tiresome to fly 12,000 miles just to read the teleprompter, so during the second season I appeared in four shows.

In 1953 you made an Italian film on the island of Ischia, called The Island Monster.


Do you remember much about it?

BORIS KARLOFF: No, I haven’t the least idea what it was like. Incredible! Dreadful! No one in the outfit spoke English, and I don’t speak Italian. Just hopeless. I had a very good time, but that’s beside the point.
Most of your recent films have been done for American International Pictures. How do you like working for them?
Boris Karloff with Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in AIP's THE RAVEN
Boris Karloff with Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in AIP's THE RAVEN

BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, they (James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff, the heads of AIP) have been extremely considerate to me. They are very successful and intelligent men. They know their market and they know their field very well. I’m most grateful to them. Their films are beautifully mounted and photographed. They shoot them in about three weeks. How can they do them in that short amount of time? The answer is in the immense amount of preparation, the homework that is done before you ever get on the set and start shooting. That’s when all the money starts to roll out, the moment you assemble the whole thing on the set. Then, if you’re not ready, you’re throwing money out the window. They rent space at a studio, they have assembled one of the finest crews that I’ve ever known, and the crews in the studios out there are really marvelous. They anticipate everything, they are ahead of you, they take a pride in what they are doing, and believe me it makes a difference. Everything is there and ready right down to the last button so that there is no pressure on me as an actor. If I’ve played a scene badly and want to do it again, they say, “sure,” not, “oh, Christ we haven’t got the time.”
Obviously, Stephen King is a masterful writer of horror fiction, but one wishes he had done a little more fact checking for his book, Danse Macabre, since it is filled with an incredible number of  factual errors.  Here are just a few from the short text I’ve quoted  from, above:

KING: …fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes…

Mr. King obviously got the total number of Thriller episodes wrong, since it was 67 episodes, not 78.

KING:  Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run

When Karloff began Thriller, he was 71  and in fairly good health.  His major health problems came in 1963 after Thriller was off the air.

KING:  Karloff had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932.

Frankenstein, as most everyone knows appeared in 1931.  Karloff did not have to wear weights to stand upright, but needed leg braces to walk in his final years.

KING: Fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (appear on the show)   “The Strange Door,” for instance.

Fans will remember The Strange Door, but not because it was an episode of Thriller. It was a Universal feature film starring Karloff and Charles Laughton.

KING:  The young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (“Pigeons from Hell”).

Mr. King’s memory is faulty, as the scene he describes does not appear in “Pigeons from Hell.”  The young man is carrying a hatchet with which he attempts to kill his brother, it is not buried in his head.

Thriller graphic


Paramount digs up Pet Semetary

Hollywood Reporter informs us that Paramount is moving closer to resurrecting the long-dorman PET SEMETARY franchise, based on the 1983 novel by Stephen King. Matthew Greenberg, who adapted King’s 1408 to the screen, will handle the screenplay, with Lorenzo di Bonaventura producting.
The 1989 film adaptation of PET SEMETARY, directed by Mary Lambert and starring Denise Crosby, earned high marks after a long string of box office duds based on King stories. However, in retrospect, the positive reaction seems a bit exaggerated – the result of lowered expectations rather than high-quality, and it is not particularly easy to imagine much potential in reviving the  premise (which already yielded one forgotten sequel, suggesting that the fairly basic idea – a cemetery that revives the dead – can stretch only so far).
Screenwriter Greenberg’s other horror, fantasy, and science fiction credits include REIGN OF FIRE, HALLOWEEN H20, and MIMIC.

The Shining (1980) – Horror Film & DVD Review

Widely reviled by Stephen King fans for abandoning much of the book (King himself said his feelings balanced out to zero), Stanley Kubrick’s film version of THE SHINING reveals, upon re-examination, that he took the same course he had used in the past when adapting novels to the screen (such as Vladimir Navokov`s Lolita): he stripped away the back story and exposition, distilling the results down to the basic narrative line, with the characters thus rendered in a more archetypal form. The result may not quite match Kubrick’s greatest films, but it is enthralling and hypnotic — a brilliant, ambitious attempt to shoot a horror film without the Gothic trappings of shadows and cobwebs so often associated with the genre.


Stephen King’s third novel (after Carrie and Salem’s Lot) tells the tale of the Torrance family (Jack, Wendy, and Danny), who spend a winter as caretakers in an old, isolated hotel that closes down in the off-season. Jack is a former school teacher and an aspiring playwright, whose drinking has harmed his career and his family life (he was fired from his teaching position before he could get tenure, and he broke his son Danny’s arm in a drunken rage). Since then, he has sobered up, and plans to use the quiet winter months to complete a play. Unfortunately, the Overlook Hotel has a bit of a bad reputation for working ill will on troubled minds: during a previous winter, a caretaker went mad with “cabin fever” and slaughtered his family and himself. Hallorann, the hotel’s cook, explains to young Danny Torrance that the Overlook is haunted, but it seems to be a peculiar kind of haunting: it takes someone with a “shining” (i.e., psychic abilities) to see and/or activate the ghosts. Both Hallorann and Danny have this ability. Once the hotel is closed and everyone else has left the Torrance family alone, Jack begins a slow descent into madness, seeing visions of ghosts that urge him to slaughter his family — in particular Danny, because the hotel covets his precious psychic gift. He discards the battery of a snowmobile that could take them to safety and destroys the radio they might use to call for help. In the latter chapters, he becomes complete possessed by the hotel, but Danny’s psychic abilities summon help in the form of Hallorann, who braves the snows to rescue the mother and son from their homicidal father. Jack knocks Hallorann senseless and obliterates his own face with a heavy mallet, leaving nothing of the real Jack — only a walking puppet controlled by the hotel — but Danny saves the day when he remembers “that which was forgotten”: that the pressure on the hotel’s boiler has not been checked. Alarmed, what’s left of Jack races to the cellar while Wendy, Jack, and Hallorann escape — just before the hotel explodes.
The Shining shows the strengths that have made Stephen King a best-selling author of horror fiction: he knows how to create situations that are genuinely frightening, and he knows how to milk them for maximum impact; but more than that, he has a gift for characterization that is rare in the genre. He creates very detailed, nuanced personalities that are not the simple heroes and villains of traditional Gothic horror (e.g., Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and he actually makes the book almost a character study as we follow the gradual transformation of Jack Torrance, whose inner demons make him an easy target for the malign influence of the Overlook.
Unfortunately, the book also displays the considerable weaknesses and excesses that marked King’s early writing. Weaned on horror movies, King uses words to mimic the crude shock effects of films: instead of zoom lenses, we get a deluge of exclamation points and parenthetical marks, and words (even whole sentences) in italics and/or ALL IN CAPS!!! As if emulating the shock-cut technique of cinema, King sometimes launches his chapters with an abrupt stream of profanity, in order to capture our interest. (The very first sentence is: “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.” A later chapter begins with this subtle dialogue: “Oh you goddam fucking son of a bitch!”) And of course he doses his pages with enough dollops of gore to satisfy any slasher movie fan.
These stylistics excesses aside, King also overdoes his central conceit — which is trying to maintain some sympathy for Jack as a human being even while we see him inevitably succumbing to the Overlook. King attempts to achieve this through long inner monologues in which Jack rationalizes his behavior; it’s a long, gradual, and far-too-slow road to damnation that runs out of interest before it reaches its conclusion, because we can see where it’s going. To cite just one example, it takes Jack two pages to think through his decision to throw away the battery to the snowmobile, but the reader knows the outcome from the beginning — because King obviously has to disable this means of escape if he’s going to maintain the suspense. Worse, King does not play this dramatic decision as the clear turning point it is (at this point, Jack must be planning to kill his family); instead, it is just one more tiny step on the way to the finale, and we’re expected to continue sympathizing with Jack as those nasty ghosts continue to make him do these terrible things that he really doesn’t want to do.
As a result, The Shining is an extremely uneven book. It is filled with great ideas and nightmarish horror, woven together with a strong story and an admirable attempt at convincing characterization. But it is also long-winded, over-written, melodramatic, and even bathetic in its attempt to wring tearjerker moments amidst the free flow of bloodshed.
In effect, the novel seemed like the perfect source material for a movie that could retain the core concepts, trim away the excess, and replace the overdone writing with a sophisticated cinematic style (much in the way that the Brian DePalma-directed Carrie had translated King’s debut novel to the screen).


When THE SHINING reached theatre screens, much more had been deleted besides the stylistic excess of the novel: not only was the bloody violence toned down; much of the action had been removed as well — a fact for which King fans have never forgiven the film. Nevertheless, it is clear that Kubrick’s screenplay (written in collaboration with novelist Diane Johnson) made several changes that improved the film: there were no longer hedge animals that came to life; Jack Torrance no longer beat himself and Hallorann bloody with a mallet; and the hotel did not blow up in a pat, satisfying finale. In effect, the book read more like a horror movie than the actual movie, which exchanged King’s hot-blooded approach to horror with Kubrick’s cold, calculating detachment, filmed almost with God-like indifference to the fates of mere mortals.
A perfect example of this is the missing hedge animals. In the book, the evoke fear early on, when they only seem to be moving when glimpsed out of the corner of the eye as Jack (doing his duties as caretaker) is trimming them. Later, when they start running around like real animals, they are barely one-step away from being a bad joke: “attack of the killer shrubbery” (one imagines Monty Python could have some good, silly fun with this concept).
In place of the hedge animals, Kubrick substitutes a hedge maze, which becomes a metaphor for the predicament in which the characters find themselves trapped. In fact, the hedge emphasizes that the entire Overlook Hotel is really a maze, with endless corridors and right angles, around which unknown horrors may be lurking.
This fits in perfectly with the traditional Kubrickian worldview, in which the apparent free will of the characters is almost always exposed as an illusion, not necessarily through the story but through the visuals. In previous films, Kubrick favored lengthy tracking shots that followed characters as they navigated paths through trenches (in PATHS OF GLORY) and spaceships (in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY). In THE SHINING, this translates into numerous wonderful Steadicam shots as, variously, Jack or Wendy or Danny wind through the corridors of the Overlook and the pathways of the hedge maze. In all cases, the moving camera (which traditionally appears to convey a sense of freedom to the characters) instead holds them in place: they seem to be choosing their path, but in truth the path has already been laid out for them by the architecture, which forces them to take particular twists and turns, around which may lurk unknown horrors (the most effective of which are the twin ghost girls, who invite Danny to play with them…forever). Layered upon top of this technique, in the Kubrick worldview, is the circular sense of endlessly repeated action, as if what we are seeing does not really come to an end but instead goes on into infinity. The difference is that, in a realistic film like PATHS OF GLORY (or the later FULL METAL JACKET), the concept of “infinity” is metaphoric at most; in THE SHINING (and 2001), it may be quite literal.
With the ghostly manifestations toned down from the book, the film relies more on a sense of claustrophobia and growing paranoia to generate a sense of unease the gradually evolves into all-out horror. Gone are most of the Overlook’s permanent guests; instead we get a few skeletal glimpses, plus the wonderful “Elevator of Blood” (used to great effect in the film’s teaser trailer. The story is also more streamlined, with less time wasted on detailing each and every increment of Jack’s descent. (The disabling of the snowmobile and the destruction of the radio take place off-screen, for example.) Because of this, some critics and King fans faulted the characterizations and performances, but again, a reasonable examination of the film shows that Kubrick made the right choices. Jack Nicholson gives a career redefining performance, beginning with the Everyman persona established in films like FIVE EASY PIECES and mutating into an over-the-top psychotic lunatic (“Heeerrre’s Johnny!”). Shelley Duvall is a big improvement over the book’s Wendy: we actually believe she still might be married to Jack, and it truly is a surprise when she manages to outmaneuver him and survive. Young Danny Lloyd is the perfect embodiment of Danny Torrance, the young boy cursed with the “Shining.” Scatman Crothers perfectly embodies the hotel’s cook, Hallorann. And Joe Turkel deserves special mention for his brief but memorable role as Lloyd, the Overlook Hotel’s ghostly bartender, which sort of sums up the approach of the whole film: he never does much of anything, but his mere presence creeps you out beyond explanation.
In spite of the perfection of the casting, the film came in for criticism, particularly from fans of the book who thought that Duvall was too weak and pathetic as Wendy, who was a much stronger character on the page. The problem that these fans seem loath to consider is that the book’s character was totally unconvincing for one simple reason: she was clearly stronger than Jack; therefore, it was impossible to believe that she would still be with him after he broke their son’s arm. King spends pages and pages of text trying to explain away this anomaly, but all his best efforts never truly convince us that this is anything but an arbitrary set-up: he needs Wendy to be a strong character so that she can believably survive her ordeal.
Kubrick, on the other hand, presents us with an apparently helpless woman, who acts rather like a battered wife, except that the violence she rationalizes away was perpetrated on her son rather than on herself. There is no attempt to turn Wendy into an idealized role model of what a strong female character should be; instead, she is a believably ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. Through a combination of luck and perseverance (and perhaps a dispensation from Kubrick, in honor of Mother Love), she manages to escape the Overlook with her son.
King himself has reportedly said he wanted an actor like Michael Moriarty to play Jack Torrance, working on the theory that this would make the character’s transformation to insanity more startling. This theory overlooks the fact Jack Nicholson’s only previous brush with on-screen madness was in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, wherein he played a convict who pretended to be insane because he thought he would have an easier time in the loony bin. As a matter of fact, most of Nicholson’s persona up to this time had been molded in films that presented him as an ordinary guy struggling with ordinary problems. THE SHINING really represents not only Jack Torrance’s transformation but also Jack Nicholson’s: it is the beginning of his wild-eyed, over-the-top period that would lead to such scenery chewing extravagance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989).
There have also been criticisms leveled that Nicholson’s antics undermine the horror of King’s story by inserting misplaced humor. However, the use of humor did not begin with Kubrick; King’s novel actually uses similar devices. At one point, Jack pretends to attack a miniature model of the Overlook, imagining himself as a giant ogre and musing, “Kiss your four-star rating goodbye!” Later, when Wendy is trapped in the bathroom with her husband trying to break in, she looks around for a weapon, and King writes, “There was a bar of soap, but even wrapped in a towel she didn’t think it would be lethal enough.”
This kind of joke truly does undermine the horror — it’s as if the author were winking at his reader in between the lines. In the film, on the other hand, the humor is part of Jack’s madness, creating an excellent sense of black comic creepiness as he merrily goes about his homicidal work, loudly announcing, “Wendy — I’m home!” as he attacks a door with an ax, or later chortling lines from the fairy tale “The Three Little Pigs” (“Little pigs, little pigs, let me in… Not by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin!”) In Kubrick’s version, Jack never obliterates his face with a mallet, signifying the destruction of his human personality as the hotel takes complete control of his body; in effect, Jack remains Jack until the end — a demented, homicidal version of himself. This keeps the horror on a human level, instead of diverging into melodramatic genre territory. It also plays into Kubrick’s theme of eternal repetition, because Jack, at least in a spiritual sense, seems to survive, providing a vague but optimistic hint of immortality after his body freezes to death in the hedge maze.
By deleting King’s explosive finale, Kubrick robs the film version of a spectacularly exciting conclusion, but the gambit pays off. In the few interviews he gave about the film, Kubrick said that he thought horror films were intrinsically optimistic because the supernatural trappings implied that our souls survived death. This idea emerges in the film’s final shot, as the camera slowly dollies in on a frame photograph of the Overlook’s ballroom, taken decades ago, and we see Jack among the partygoers. The image is ambiguous. We cannot say for sure whether it means Jack visited the hotel in a past life (in his dialogue he mentions a sense of deja vu) or whether, by dying on the premises, he has been subsumed into the hotel’s past, becoming one of its permanent guests — becoming, in effect, a part of eternity. This reading seems to be supported by a scene in a restroom where Jack confronts the ghost of Grady, who is now dressed as a butler. When Jack recognizes him as the previous caretaker, who killed himself and his family, Grady insists: “I’m sorry to differ with you, sir…but you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir — I’ve always been here.”
This effective scene exemplifies Kubrick’s approach to the horror, which is to present it in a low-key, matter-of-fact way, emphasizing the “banality of evil.” With the red-and-white background decor shot from rigid right angles, Jack and Grady discuss violence past and violence yet to come with a complete moral indifference that evokes shudders — as when Grady recalls, with seeming moral indignation, that he “corrected” his wife and daughters when they tried to burn down the hotel. The disconnect between his word choice and his actions is so great that it feels like an electric shock going down the spine.
The scene also shows off one of the film’s subtle conceits: Jack sees ghosts only in rooms with mirrors (the ballroom, the bar, the bathroom). It is as if Kubrick were reminding us that they are merely reflections of Jack’s own disintegrating personality. The only time Jack interacts with a ghost when he is in a room without mirrors is after Wendy has locked him in the storage room — and in that case, he only hears Grady’s voice through the door, almost as if it were only an imagined voice in his head.
In this context, one other scene deserves mentioning: the famous room 237. In the book, Danny sees a vision of the decomposed body of a woman who committed suicide in a bathtub years ago, and winds up in a catatonic state with bruises on his neck; when his father goes to check, Jack gets a glimpse of something behind the shower curtain, then denies see it. The function of these chapters in the novel was to show that Danny’s visions were not just intangible memories that his “shining” allowed him to see; they could take physical form and do actual harm. In the movie, the two scenes are overlapped through intercutting, with Danny flashing back to his encounter while Jack his experiencing his in real time. The difference is that, in the film, Jack clearly sees not a shadow behind a shower curtain a beguiling woman, completely nude, who steps out of the tub and lures him into an embrace. The erotically charged interlude is interrupted by Jack’s glance into a mirror — which reveals that the beautiful body in his arms is actually the bloated corpse of a hideous hag. The implication is that the hotel is presenting a seductive facade to Jack, but the ugly truth resides in the mirror. The mirror, of course, provides a reflection, again implying that the source of the horror lies as much within Jack’s mind as in shuttered rooms of the hotel. The metaphor is not all that different from DRACULA, where (as Leonard Wolf has noted, in THE ESSENTIAL DRACULA) fail to see the vampire’s reflection because they refuse to acknowledge he is a reflection of themselves.
As a film, Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING belongs in a category that includes Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY. All three are horror films, based on novels, that emerge less as traditional genre adaptations than as auteur pieces that reflect the styles, themes, and concerns of their respective filmmakers. With an emphasis on craftsmanship and conviction, these are all films that, at least to some extent, “mainstream” the horror genre — not necessarily by toning it down, but rather by presenting their stories with a level of performance and style that makes them seem believable to the audience. In a sense, all of them transcend the genre by not slavishly hewing to genre conventions. There is never a point in any of them where credibility is tossed aside in order to achieve a cheap shock effect. As a result, they may disappoint hardcore horror fans, who enjoy being jolted at regular intervals, but they work on an altogether finer, more sophisticated level.


Stanley Kubrick considered changing the ending, so that when Hallorann arrived to save Wendy and Danny, he would become possessed by the hotel and finish Jack’s intended purpose, murdering the family and himself. The film would have ended with an “upbeat” epilogue, in which, as the Overlook reopens next season, the Torrance family is re-united in the afterlife as ghosts haunting the hotel lobby.
Kubrick and his screenplay collaborator discussed the possibility that audiences might be distracted because the first name of the film’s star (Jack Nicholson) was the same as that of the character he was playing (Jack Torrance). Ironically, Kubrick then ended up casting young Danny Lloyd as Jack’s son, Danny Torrance.
When the film was originally released, a longer print was available for the first few days of screenings. After the shot of Jack Torrance frozen to death in the hedge maze, the film included an epilogue, wherein Wendy and Danny are seen safely back in the hospital, having surviving their ordeal at the Overlook. While dialogue delivered by the hotel’s director Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) implied that the horror was over, Kubrick’s tracking shots down the hospital corridors echoed the feel of the Overlook, suggesting that the same eternal maze of repeated actions was very much still in force. The film then cut to the final shot of the camera dollying in to a close-up of the framed photograph on a wall, implying that Jack Torrance has become a part of the Overlook’s timeless eternity. The cutting of this sequence was not a response to audience reaction to the movie; it was widely reported before the film’s release that Kubrick was planning to make a last-minute cut of some kind, but uncut prints had to be shipped to meet the pre-set release date. The footage has never been seen again, not even as a supplement on the DVD.
Like most films of its era, THE SHINING was shot in a standard 1:1.33 format and projected in a 1:1.85 format. This means that the image on the negative was 1.3 times wider than the height, but when the film was projected in theatres, a matte was used in the projector to crop off the top and bottom of the frame; consequently, when the film was magnified and projected on screen, it would have a “widescreen” look that was 1.85 times wider than the height (in other words, if the screen was ten feet tall, it would be eighteen-and-a-half feet wide). However, when shown on television, the image is presented unmatted, because the aspect ratio of the television screen is very close to the 1:1.33 aspect ratio of the negative. This means that you can see more of the image on television than you could in theatres, which can produce unfortunate results. In the case of THE SHINING, during the famous opening credits helicopter shots of the car driving through snowy mountain ranges on the way to the Overlook hotel, in one shot, you can briefly see the shadow of the helicopter near the bottom of the frame; in another shot, you can see the blur of the helicopter blades near the top of the frame.
Although Stephen King admired the film’s technical virtues, he was dissatisfied with changes made to the story; he said his feelings “balanced out to zero.” In the 1990s, he got a chance to film THE SHINING his way, as a two-part made-for-television movie, directed by Mick Garris.


The DVD presentation of THE SHINING, available as part of the Stanley Kubrick collection from Warner Home Video, presents the film in the unmatted 1:1.33 aspect ratio, with a Dolby monaural soundtrack (Kubrick wanted to preserve the sound mix from the theatrical version, not created a new one for home video). The print is mostly in good shape, but there is some visible speckling over the opening shots, and of course the infamous helicopter shadow and blades are visible thanks to the top and bottom of the image not being matted off as they were in theatres.
The disc contains the famous trailer that features the eerie “Elevator of Blood,” which slowly opens, releasing a deluge of red liquid into the halls of the Overlook Hotel. There is also a half-hour documentary on “The Making of THE SHINING,” that was filmed on-set by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian. The film is instructive for a number of reasons, mostly because it belies the image of Kubrick as the chess mastermind who plotted every move beforehand in the planning stage and then executed his plan with iron rigidity — and no creative inspiration — during the actual production. As this documentary makes clear, script revisions were going on constantly throughout production, and Kubrick is seen typing up new pages that incorporate new ideas and suggestions from Jack Nicholson. At one point, Nicholson explains the multi-colored script to Kubrick’s mother: the pages of each new revision are a new color, making them easy to identify, and says he gave up trying to keep up with them once the script ran out of colors and started re-using them.
The documentary features interviews with the actors but not with Kubrick himself, whose only words to the camera are to tell his daughter to get out of the way or stop filming. Despite Kubrick’s reluctance to reveal his working methods, the documentary does provide an interesting look behind-the-scenes, including some conflict between the director and his lead actress (who admits resenting that she did not receive as much attention as Nicholson). We see Kubrick arguing with Duvall over dialogue changes she proposes on set, and at one point he berates her because she responds too late when he called “Action” during an elaborate Steadicam shot involving physical effects for wind and snow. At a half-hour in length, “The Making of  THE SHINING” is far from an in-depth work, but it is about the best behind-the-scenes glimpse we are ever likely to see of the notoriously reclusive Kubrick. This in itself makes the DVD worth owning.
A subsequent “Two-Disc Special Edition” DVD offers a new transfer with a different aspect that crops off the top and bottom of the frame, plus optional audio commentary by Steadicam operator Garret Brown and film journalist John Baxter. The second disc includes a handful new bonus feature: besides the old making-of documentary and the trailer from the earlier DVD, there are three new behind-the-scenes featurettes (apparently leftover bits from Jan Harlan’s documentary STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES). Total running time of the new material is less than an hour.
THE SHINING (1980). Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel.

News: King-Hill Collaboration Throttles to Screen

Variety reports that producer Nick Wechsler has obtained the rights to film “Throttle,” a collaboration between author Stephen King and his son Joe Hill. This 60-page story follows two men from a motorcycle gang – a father and a son – evading an 18-wheel truck. If that sounds reminiscent of Richard Matheson’s “Duel” (a novella published in Playboy that became a TV movie directed by Steven Spielberg), it is no accident: the story is scheduled to be published in an anthology titled He Is Legend, featuring stories inspired by Matheson.

“It has elements of iconic films like ‘Duel’ and ‘Breakdown,’ but with a horror element that I want to push,” Wechsler said. Literary collaboration is the first between King and his son.

Wechsler is currently wrapping post-production on a film version of The Time Traveler’s Wife, based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger. Release for the film, which stars Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, is scheduled for Christmas Day, courtesy of Warner Brothers and Newline.

The Mist: Two-Disc Collector's Edition – DVD Review

Director Frank Darabont has made a cottage industry out of bringing Stephan King stories to the screen. In the past he has done big-budget adaptations of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE GREEN MILE. Finally released from prison he decided to adapt THE MIST, a short story from King’s Skeleton Crew collection. The fact that THE MIST was a failure at the box office has not stopped Dimension from giving it the deluxe two-disc “Collectors Edition” treatment. As with the film, the sum of the parts of the DVD is better than the whole.
As Steve Biodrowski pointed out in his review of the film it has major structure problems – the first half is engrossing and taunt while the second half falls apart as a sloppy metaphor married to a TWILIGHT ZONE ending, albeit a bleak one. It’s the tone of the times, a post 9/11 sensibility that Continue reading “The Mist: Two-Disc Collector's Edition – DVD Review”

1408 (2007) – DVD Review

EDITOR’S NOTE: As mentioned in our rundown of genre films overlooked by the Oscars, John Cusack gives a one-man show in 1408 that rivals Will Smith’s somewhat similar turn in I AM LEGEND. Neither one got a nomination, but we think they should have.

After all the bones were broken and all the blood was spilled, after all the flesh was sliced and diced, after all the echoes of agony, the gnashing of teeth and the wailing of despair, had faded, it was not the highly-hyped HALLOWEEN, not the hostile HOSTEL, not the gritty GRINDHOUSE that was the most successful horror movie of the year. Instead, it was a little, low-key ghost story about a man spending a night in a haunted hotel room.

One might credit the success to the cache of the Stephen King brand-name, but that did little good for THE MIST, which dissipated almost as soon as theatre doors opened. No, one is forced to conclude that there is an audience of movie-goers who want to be thrilled and chilled, not gutted and filleted. 1408 catered to this demand by relying on the classic structure, as laid out by Victorian author M. R. James in the introduction to his book Ghosts and Marvels:

Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage. It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation, but, I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable.

1408 follows the formula so closely that it might seem in danger of degenerating into a cliched mess, but it is rescued by the basic virtues of solid craftsmanship. Basically, any subject, even one as familiar as the ghost story, can be done right if it is done well. This film serves up the ominous portents, the haunted history, and even a dark and stormy night – and makes it all work, thanks to clever writing, directing, and acting.
On top of all this, we get another variation of an old standby, the Prophet of Doom Who Warns the Hero Away – a character who has been around, in modern form, at least since Melville’s Moby Dick. In this case, we have Samuel L. Jackson as Mr. Olin, manager of the hotel that houses the haunted room. He has a function; we know what it is, and we know he will fail – otherwise, the film would end before it got started. Yet his confrontation with Mike Enslin (John Cusack), an author who makes a living by writing about his experiences in haunted houses, plays like a legitimate drama, filled with believable human frustration over Enslin’s dogged insistence on ignoring the warnings meant not to intrigue but to dissuade him.

One strength of Stephen King’s writing, which James himself never really mastered, is characterization. For King, it was never enough to have simply an antiquarian, an ingenue, or a ghost hunter walking into a haunted place; his characters were always complex people, often haunted by their own inner demons, which were activated by proximity to supernatural evil. 1408 continues in that tradition (albeit much augmented by the screenwriters), by fashioning Enslin as man who never came to terms with the grief over the death of his daughter, which in turn led him to walk out on his wife (apparently after announcing that he was going out for some cigarettes). We are led to believe that he switched from writing literature to non-fiction because he was searching for evidence of life-after-death, which he hoped to find in one of the haunted houses that became his subject matter. Failing that, he turned even more bitter and cynical, eager to crush not only his own hopes but those of his readers.

With this kind of set-up, which is cleverly interwoven into the narrative, not all front-loaded as exposition, Enlin is inevitably heading toward a confrontation with forces that will challenge not only his beliefs but, more precisely, his unbeliefs. Room 1408 becomes a sort of private, personal Hell, populated not only by the ghosts of past victims but by the inner demons of Enslin’s mind. The manifestations are presented in a dramatic way that almost invites the audience to interpret the action as hallucinatory, as if Enslin’s guilty mind were torturing him not only with his past grief but with his own failure to deal with it.

Even with all the psycho-drama, 1408 never forgets to frighten its audience. Having introduced the actor in a placid way, the film has lulled the audience into a close identification that makes the viewer feel as if standing side by side with Enslin in the haunted room, so that when the ghosts start jumping, the audience jumps as well.

The actual manifestations are somewhat variable; fortunately, the film’s carefully wrought audience-identification strategy carries you past them. Director Mikael Hafstrom conceives the first couple of ghosts in gimmicky ways: the oldest one flickers in black-and-white like an old silent movie; a later one resembles a ’50s Technicolor movie. Far better are moments of mind-bending horror, such as a scene reminiscent of Polanski’s THE TENANT, wherein Enslin looks across the street and sees himself staring back from a window in the opposite building.

The script plays around with the conventions not only of the horror genre but also of the dramatic form, presenting an apparent opportunity for the protagonist to learn his lesson and grow as a person. Unfortunately, the inevitable plot twists are sadly predictable: when Cusak’s character nearly drowns early on, you can bet that later he will wake up thinking the rest of the movie was just a near-death experience. This kind of manipulation undermines the ending: the point becomes not to finish the story as effectively as possible but to “surprise” the audience with some unexpected resolution. Sensing the artificiality, the audience tunes out, and the ending lacks conviction. (Apparently, the filmmakers themselves sensed this, and were uncertain about how to end the film.)

John Cusack (Mike Enslin) and Samuel L. Jackson (Mr. Olin) star in Mikael Håfström’s 1408.

Whatever its weaknesses, 1408 holds you captive. The film may seem like a one-room version of THE SHINING, condensed and tight rather than big and sprawling like the Kubrick movie, but Hafstrom does an impressive job of keeping its limited space visually interesting for feature length, and when all else fails the story succeeds on the strength of Cusack’s performance. The actor is allowed to give a virtual one-man show, ranging from funny to fearful, alternating between broad physical action (when the character explodes in rage against the room’s asault on him) with quieter interludes of angst and despair. Forcing the audience to experience his terror with an almost first-hand immediacy, Cusack runs the emotional gamut, delivering a performance as layered and complex as any of the 2007s Oscar nominees. Thanks in large part to his efforts, 1408 comes close to being a character study rather than a horror film – WILD STRAWBERRIES, with ghosts. Unlike too many movies that aspire to more than mere horror, this one achieves its goal without neglecting the fear factor.

 DVD DETAILS (Spoilers)

Dimension Home Entertainment’s 2-Disc DVD set contains both the PG-13 theatrical cut and the so-called unrated “director’s cut.” The latter is longer, contains a few more flashes of blood, and features an alternate ending. Picture and audio quality are solid. Subtitle options include  English for Hearing Impaired and Spanish. Bonus features include Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, and an Audio Commentary.
DELETED SCENES(presented with optional commentry):

  • Contacting Lily: Actually an extended version of a sequence that was recut, parts of it appearing elsewhere in the final cut. Mike Enslin fears he is being watched through overhead vent before opening laptop.
  • Wrought with Guilt: Mike Enslin’s tape recorder talks to him while he flashbacks to dialogue with wife about thier dead daughter.
  • I Warned You About 1408: Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) appears in post-office before construction workers tear down facade, revealing that Enslin is back in 1408.
  • Tilting Room and Lilly Pleads at Door: After refusing to commit suicide, Enslin sees Lily arrive on a TV nonitor, and he tries to run to the door. The room does not actually appear to tilt; rather, gravity seems to go askew as Enlin is pulled away from his destination. Unable to prevent his wife from entering, Enlin begs her to leave, but she does not want to abandon him. The anti-gravity effect is visually interesting, but the scene does not work well.
  • Arriving at the Dolphin (Director’s Cameo): Enslin flies on on airplane ot New York, with director Mikael Hafstrom  playing another passenger on seat next to him.

SECRETS OF 1408 (Featurettes)

  • The Characters: Video interviews discussing the characters, including the Room itself. There are behind-the-scenes glimpse of gimbal used to tilt the room. Cusack talks about working mostly without another actor.
  • The Director: Video interviews, clips from film and behind-scenes footage paint a picture of Mikael Hafstrom  working with his actors. This vignette feels a bit like a mutal admiration society, Cusack complimenting the director and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura complimenting Cusack.
  • The Physical Effects: Depicts the diifferent versions of set used to achieve differnet effects: flodding, tilting, etc. This includes more footage of the gimbal, and we see the set lowered into a water tank for the flooding scene.
  • The Production Design: Focuses on creating the look of the room, which had to be ordinary but not boring, the trick being that it could not look obviously spooky. The concept was to portray the “banality of evil.” Several versions of the room were built for its many appearances (such as the frozen version). We learn that the production designer worked with closely with the physical effects crew and the lighting crew, in the latter case so that the set could be lit with the lamps and fixtures actually seen on screen.


Director Mikael Hafstrom and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski talk extensively about the film. Hafstrom cites Polanski films ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE TENANT, and REPULSION as influences. Unfortunately, the director tends to talk over the screenwriters and frequently delays subjects by saying “We can come back to that later.”  The effects is frustrating, and one suspects that some of the topics end up not as fully discussed as they might have been. For instance, Hafstrom never settles the question of who sent postcard that lures Enslin to Room 1408, which is acceptable, but he seems not even to have an interpretation of his own to offer.

Alexander and Karaszewski provide interesting details about the differences between the script’s first draft (written by Matt Greenberg), their own drafts, and later story changes made during post-production. Eventually, you get the impression that the creative team had trouble coming to definite decisions and resorted to the cop-out of leaving the interpretation up to audience. This approach can work, but it works best when the filmmakers have a rational worked out in their own minds, so that the clues they present add up.

The audio commentary makes clear that, despite the label, this is not truly a “director’s cut” (i.e., the cut sanctioned by the director before being re-edited by the producers). Rather, it is an alternate cut that includes ideas that were abandoned and scenes that were dropped or shortened to speed up pace or secure a PG-13 rating. There are a few more snippets of dramatic material (e.g., with Enslin and his father). When the paintings in the room change appearance to unnerving effect, one features a glimpse a nipple. (We learn that one of the room’s ghosts, who was not explained in the history Mr. Olin gives to Enslin, was added to a painting, because the filmmakers were afraid audiences would wonder where the character came from.) And Enslin’s crawl through the ventilator shaft, including a confrontation with a living corpse, goes on longer.


The director’s cut has Mike Enslin die, sacrificing himself in the fire he sets to Room 1408. Afterward, Mr. Olin shows up at the funeral to give Enslin’s personal effects to his widow, who refuses them. When a disappointed Olin returns to his car, there is a phony jump scare with a burned Enslin briefly glimpsed in the backseat. This is followed by a scene back at the burned-out hotel, which fades out while Enslin’s ghost calmly exits 1408, presumably to reunite with his daughter in the afterlife. The two sequences actually feel like two alternate endings, tacked together despite their contradictory nature: if Enslin’s ghost (looking perfectly normal) is back i 1408, then why is he appearing as a bogey-monster in the back of Olin’s car? This seems to be evidence that the filmmakers had trouble deciding on an ending, so they tried out three of four different ones; one ended up in the theatrical version; two on the DVD. Sadly, none of them is fully satisfying.

Bleeding cracks in the wall crack Cusack’s skepticism.

1408 (2007). Directed by Mikael Hafstrom. Screenplay by Matt Greenberg and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, based on the short story by Stephen King. Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Tony Shalhoub, Jasmine Jessica Anthony.