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Friday, Nov. 28, 2008

'1408'/'Diary of the Dead'

It's a horror show, you should come on round


"1408" is the latest story by Stephen King to make it to the big screen, and it's quite similar to one of the first King movies, "The Shining." There's a cynical writer — John Cusack this time, instead of Jack Nicholson — who goes to stay at a spooky hotel, but it's OK, because he doesn't believe in ghosts.

1408 Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Heeeeere's Johnny: Cusack loses it in "1408."

Director: Michael Hafstrom
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (Nov. 28, 2008)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Cusack, deploying all the smarminess he can muster, plays Mike Ensulin, a travel writer who specializes in books about haunted hotels and "Ghost Survival Guides." The trouble is, he doesn't believe in any of it; having visited every "haunted" location in America, he's never actually witnessed any paranormal activity.

Then he discovers the Dolphin Hotel, smack dab in the middle of Manhattan, where there's a room, No. 1408, that's supposedly so horrific that the hotel won't even let anyone stay there. The hotel's manager (Samuel L. Jackson) warns Ensulin of the 56 mysterious deaths that have occurred in 1408: heart attack, stroke, throat-cutting, jumpers, even drowning, which is mighty hard to accomplish in a hotel room.

Ensulin's convinced it's a big hoax, though, and insists on staying the night. The hotel staff won't even go through the door of 1408, but Ensulin takes his key, strides inside and shuts the door. Then he sits back and waits to see what will happen.

The tension at this point is incredible, and when it starts happening, you'll feel like this is going to be the scariest movie ever. The beauty of the setup is such that you know something bad is coming, but have absolutely no idea what, which is way more terrifying than definable demons.

But alas, "1408" is all come-on and no delivery, like the girl you meet on the dance floor who drags you into the back room and puts her tongue down your throat, but then asks you to buy her a drink, and takes off before you get back from the bar. A disappointment, in other words.

"1408" is absolutely stroke-inducingly terrifying for its first hour. The sound-designers have a field day, with babies crying in the walls, weird muffled dialogue and a nerve-shredding score by the great Gabriel Yared. Director Michael Hafstrom works hard to use every nook and cranny in the room to create dread and claustrophobia; even a digital clock becomes insanely threatening. Paranoia must feel like this.

Diary of the Dead Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Blind boy: Zombie seeking botox in George Romero's "Diary of the Dead"

Director: George A. Romero
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (Nov. 28, 2008)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

But after, um, "things" happen in Cusack's hotel room, and he's reduced to a mass of quivering jelly struggling to hold onto his sanity, the film has nowhere to go; it just keeps doing more of the same, but bigger and louder and with more decadent use of CGI. (And that's the answer to everything in Hollywood.)

Is it possible to make a disaster movie in but one small hotel room? "1408" thinks so, and gives us a fire, a flood, a blizzard, an earthquake and a portal to another dimension. Hell, if they'd thrown in a volcano, I would have given them an extra star.

"1408" is indeed like "The Shining," but "The Shining" after a dozen drinks; it's weepy and sentimental, then loud and violent, then it stops making sense altogether — just like a bad drunk. Subplots about Ensulin's divorce and his family life are thrown in as "issues" he has to resolve while on this nightmare trip, with all the subtlety of a whack-a-mole game. "1408" blows its good start completely and seems positively histrionic next to the no-nonsense chills of films such as "Vacancy" (2007) or "The Orphanage" (opening next month.)

Old master George Romero is also back this month with the fifth installment in his pioneering zombie-movie series that started way back in 1968 with "Night of the Living Dead." If you only see two zombie movies in your life, then "Night" and its shopping mall-set followup, "Dawn of the Dead" (1979), are the ones to see. They wrote the rules for the genre, and while they've had many imitators, few have equaled the disturbing quality of Romero's works. Disturbing not only in the terrors they dish out, but also in their jaundiced view of society; one suspects the chaos that erupted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina came as no surprise to Mr. Romero.

Romero's latest, "Diary of the Dead," follows a group of student filmmakers who decide to keep the cameras running as a mysterious plague causes the dead to rise and eat the living. The film's director, Jason (Josh Close), piles his cast and crew into a van to check on friends and loved ones. Sure enough, they encounter the undead, but keep filming even at great personal risk — a la "The Blair Witch Project" — because, like, this will be the coolest YouTube video ever, man!

Romero's satire is as sharp as always, and Generation Blog is an easy target. Where his last film, "Land of the Dead," (2005) took aim at America's gated communities and private-security contractors, "Diary" (like "Cloverfield") looks at our current obsession with mediation and self-dramatization through the absurd prism of the apocalypse. He could have taken it further, I suppose: the whole notion of "zombie" has taken on a new meaning, anyway, when you can ride a packed Tokyo subway car and find several hundred people all tuned out of reality and staring blankly into little cell-phone screens. "Docomo of the Dead," anyone?


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