August 29, 2007 5:57 pm

The room best left unbooked

Few hotel managers assure a new guest that “It’s an evil fucking room”, though a Manchester hotel receptionist once used similar terms to me, corporate loyalty not
featuring notably in Trust House Forte at the time.

Little does phantom-researching chiller writer Mike Enslin know what awaits him in 1408 of New York’s Dolphin Hotel. All one can say is that he can’t have seen those other films concerning hotels (literally) from hell, The Shining or Barton Fink. The publicity material confirms that Kubrick’s resort-set study of supernaturally induced breakdown was an influence on Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography. Comparisons are odious.

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Director Mikael Hafström stages his world-weary hero’s nocturnal ordeal as a virtual solo for John Cusack. For a hardened hack, he loses his nerve in the allegedly haunted room pretty quickly over events that could equally serve as slapstick – a falling sash window, a cold tap suddenly scalding – presumably so that the Stephen King-based story can start piling on the agony.

Fire, flood, earthquake, vertiginous heights and music by The Carpenters are among the horrors inducing gibbering terror, intercut with fragments of a painful past: marriage break-up, the death of a child. The film drags its handsome length interminably through numerous false endings.

It all rather sidesteps the question of why reluctant manager Samuel L. Jackson fails to demand a written disclaimer from a guest insisting on a room that has seen 56 deaths, including drowning in chicken soup. Not even Manchester can equal that.

The alternation of thrills and silliness is even more marked in Death Sentence. Kevin Bacon as the well-to-do paterfamilias of a loving family sparks a war of bloody retribution when he inadvertently kills the hoodlum who murdered his son.

As the story is based on writer Brian Garfield’s sequel to Death Wish it may not be giving too much away to say that the slaughter assumes dynastic proportions, Mr Garfield evidently not being one to waste a durable plot.

Director James Wan (Saw) and his director of photography John R. Leonetti have a creepy gift for evoking hell on earth, with bleached colours, blasted urban landscapes, and a red glow for the den of drug-dealer-gun-salesman John Goodman – echoes of his diabolic aura in yet another of the week’s reminders of Barton Fink – not to mention a breathless pursuit over several floors of a car park filmed in a single take. But like 1408 it lurches on too long and topples into bathos.

Better that than the uniform blandness of No Reservations. Catherine Zeta-Jones (up-tight fashionable chef, no private life), sudden intrusion of orphaned niece (Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine), perceived threat from handsome sous-chef Aaron Eckhart, whose habit of singing Italian opera is marginally more intolerable in a busy kitchen than Gordon Ramsay’s swearing, and less justifiable: the ingredients of the German original Mostly Martha this time produce a cliché Chinese dish, forgotten a mere five minutes later.

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