Talking Movies

September 6, 2019

From the Archives: 1408

This expedition into the pre-Talking Movies archives doth descry cynical writer John Cusack hacking out books debunking supposedly haunted houses. For the final chapter of his latest tome he checks into a notorious New York hotel room, only to find that this room is actually evil….

Stephen King’s work has been the source for nearly 100 films over the last 30 years and has provided many meaty acting roles. John Cusack, who had a minor role in Rob Reiner’s 1986 King adaptation Stand By Me, is on fine form here as the jaded writer Mike Enslin. The film’s opening act is surprisingly funny as Enslin remains mordantly undaunted despite the best efforts of hotel manager Gerald Olin to dissuade him from checking in to 1408. Even after the room turns on him Enslin’s jaded cynicism still enables him to deliver one-liners. Samuel L Jackson has very little screen time as Olin but is an absolute hoot in his best turn in some years. His delivery of the line “It’s an evil f***ing room” is guaranteed to elicit cheers.

Director Mikael Hafstrom impressively manages to ratchet up tension for pure shocks and also to comically undercut it. The entrance of Mike Enslin into room 1408 for the first time is particularly joyous as music, editing and camera angles all combine to create creeping dread. It’s difficult to discuss the plot without ruining it but suffice it to say that the horrors inflicted on Enslin began quite plausibly as the room sounds him out. Later the terrors become more nightmarish as it becomes clear that the room skims the subconsciousness of guests in order to inflict their darkest fears upon them. Mike Enslin is thus increasingly fleshed out as a character the more the room tries to scare the bejaysus of out him. We find out in snatches what it is that has made him so detached from people.

It’s important at this point to note that there is more humanity in 10 minutes of 1408 than in all of Eli (Hostel) Roth’s oeuvre. It is cheering to see a PG-13 horror film being made, and doing well, in the current climate. It proves that a good script complete with laughs, genuine jumps and a heart can still succeed. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski wrote Man on the Moon, Agent Cody Banks and the forthcoming Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Matt Greenberg, the other screenwriter, comes from a gory horror background but he’s been affected here by their sense of fun. It is impossible to enjoy any of those misogynistic exercises in cruelty like Hostel which have been rightly dubbed ‘torture porn’. 1408 is a throwback to the traditional horror film. It does not want you moaning in revulsion while covering your eyes, wondering why you paid money to see such inhuman barbarism, it wants to make you jump in fright and send you away smiling. For that intention and its successful execution it deserves an audience.

3/5

October 17, 2013

Escape Plan

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger finally properly co-star together, and the result is a superior slice of prison break nonsense.

THE TOMB

Ray Breslin (Stallone) begins the film getting sent to solitary in a federal prison in Colorado for shanking a vengeful fellow prisoner. He promptly escapes with the help of an explosive diversion outside. And then explains to the warden how he did it, because that’s Ray’s job. Aided by his colleagues Abigail (Amy Ryan) and Hush (Curtis Jackson), Ray is sent to prisons by his business partner Lester (Vincent D’Onofrio) to compromise their security, so that weak-points can be eliminated. However, when CIA agent Miller (Monaghan’s Caitriona Balfe) employs Ray to test a new black site things go sideways. Victimised by vicious guard Drake (Vinne Jones), Stallone finds the warden Hobbes (Jim Caviziel) is not his contact, but his nemesis. Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), an associate of a master financial hacker, is Ray’s only chance of escaping from Hobbes’ unbreakable The Tomb.

Director Mikael Hafstrom is obviously aware of the silliness of proceedings. The first appearance of Schwarzenegger is accompanied by a deliriously knowing camera swoop to reveal his face. And then a later slow-mo extreme close up on Arnie’s eyes accompanies an appropriately massive gun finally being given to him. The dialogue at times creaks under the weight of expectation for good one-liners that it can’t quite deliver. But there is so much to love in this film. Arnie freaking out in German in an extended sequence in which he recites the entire ‘Our Father’ as well as riffing on Nietzsche’s Gay Science is oddly glorious. And Stallone’s emphasis on brains over brawn is a pleasing acknowledgment of his age: his strength is his tactical nous in assessing how structural weak points best combine with the blind moments in guards’ routines.

Hobbes beautifully uses Ray’s very life work against him. If you’d read one of Cosmo Landesman’s more ridiculous rants you’d note that Caviziel’s wearing of a waistcoat, fastidious dusting of his tie, and studious hobby of pinning butterflies resemble Christopher Eccleston’s alleged coders of homosexuality in Gone in 60 Seconds. Landesman’s quite odd sometimes… Far more interesting is noting Republican Schwarzenegger’s involvement in such a politically subversive script. Hobbes dispenses with the niceties of water-boarding to simply insert a hose in Rottmayer’s mouth and let rip. Faran Tahir’s Javed becomes an integral and sympathetic part of the escape, so that suddenly either we’re rooting for a mujihadeen to get back to business or accepting that the CIA quite frequently renditions the wrong man. Escape Plan is also a needlessly star-studded film. Sam Neill gets very little to do as the sympathetic prison doctor, while the great Ryan is similarly underused.

Escape Plan, excepting some expansive pull-outs, prioritises physical sets and choreography over CGI, and is the escapist fun The Expendables franchise fails to deliver.

4/5

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