Monday, July 16, 2007

1408: Ghost Stories and the Value of Genre Promiscuity

I haven't blogged on films much this summer because I haven't really had the time. But I also haven't blogged much because I didn't see much all summer that really provoked me into wanting to write. Some things intrigued me about Ratatouille , but I feel like Ted Pigeon already pretty much nailed my thoughts regarding that film on the head (I'm also curious to see if he can continue his amazingly prolific blog production).

But I was interested in 1408--Mikael Håfström's follow-up to the horrendous, Derailed (2005). The two films do not seem on the surface to have much in common, other than--apparently--Håfström sees the American urban hotel as the site of all evil.

But I was interested in 1408 because I love ghost movies, almost more than any other single genre, and there have been so few of late--good or otherwise.

1408 starts out very strong--a great sequence in a book shop, where Mike Enslin (John Cusack) signs copies of his latest book for an equally bored crowd, as though no one really believes the ghost stuff. Its a nice variation on the skeptic-as-protagonist set-up.

Then there's another seductive scene when Mike first arrives at the hotel, and the manager (Samuel L. Jackson) warns him not to go into the room. I felt it built the anticipation nicely, as did the long sequence where Mike tries to actually find the room.

Several other devices--such as a "scaredy cat" electrician, and a possessed alarm clock (which works despite being utterly predictable)--ratchet up the tension further.

But then the film hits a wall (literally and figuratively). It doesn't know where it wants to go from there. It doesn't know how to bring everything together towards a satisfying climax--or even a satisfying anti-climax.

It falls back on lifeless psychobabble about relationships with dead daughters and dead fathers. There is some arresting imagery (including suicide jumpers in an effectively eerie bit of post-9/11, post-classical modernist anxiety re: the American Skyscraper).

But most of the would-be scares feel random and arbitrary--as though the filmmakers weren't quite sure what would work, all capped off with a final twist ending that doesn't feel like much of a twist ending.

There are also the requisite false endings prior to that, which I'm sure most people saw coming a mile away. Again, it felt like another attempt to find something to do with a story that it had effectively brought to a certain point, but couldn't sustain.

So, why does such a promising film die out? I think it has something to do with the inherent cliches of the ghost film--how many directions can subtle variations on the exact same plot go?

Are ghost movies, by virtue of their genre, just fatally flawed in their DNA?

Comparing 1408 to The Shining is an obvious one, and has already been worked through several times before--two Stephen King stories about a writer trapped in a haunted building. But the comparison bears repeating.

Why does (in my opinion, of course) The Shining work and 1408 ultimately doesn't? I think there's something to be said about committing to the genre. The Shining never really commits to being a ghost movie (it could mostly be the work of a delusional drunk), and thus can maintain its creepy atmosphere and eerie ambiguity up to the end.

Conversely, 1408 does commit to being a ghost movie, and thus its possibilities for a resolution that isn't just unsatisfying straightforward suddenly feels diminished--you can either kill yourself or burn the building down (or both).

Or it can all be the dream of a dead person. But that twist only works (Carnival of Souls, Sixth Sense) once every couple of decades.

Or worse still (see Dark Castle's films), they actually confront and beat the ghosts face-to-face, as though they were just another embodied antagonist.

But still its not that easy. I want to criticize 1408, but I'm not sure what it could have done right in its second half. If it didn't commit to genre, I'd probably just be as inclined to criticize it for being too much like The Shining. There's only so many times a ghost film can ape that ending, too.

So, again, are haunted house movies just born with that genetic flaw?

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