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The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

06/23/2011 2 comments

Stephen King is well-known for spinning tales of terror ranging from the supernatural to the mundane, using his considerable storytelling skills to inject fear into such things as a vintage car, a hotel room, and high school awkwardness. What many people don’t know is that happens when he steps outside the realm of horror and offers up an inspirational tale of maintaining hope in a situation that seems utterly hopeless, and in keeping a strong spirit in a setting that seems determined to tear you down. The result is this.

The Shawshank Redemption is a drama film written and directed by Frank Darabont, based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It stars Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, and Clancy Brown.

It is 1947. A mild-mannered banker named Andy Dufresne has just been convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover, despite his protestations of innocence, and sentenced to two life terms in the infamous Shawshank Prison. While there, he meets and befriends one Ellis Redding (known to his friends as Red), who is well-known in the prison for being able to get things for the inmates, and makes two simple requests: a rock hammer, in order to start and maintain a rock collection while in prison, and a poster of Rita Hayworth, one of the sex symbols of the day. Red takes an interest in Andy over the years as inmates come and go (including a lifer who couldn’t handle the outside world after serving 50 years in prison), watching as every part of Shawshank tries to break his will to go on, from the corrupt warden to the predatory band of rapists known as the Sisters. However, Red is about to learn an important lesson from the quiet banker: Prison is more than the walls that contain you. Prison is a state of mind – and if you don’t let prison get into your mind, you are capable of some amazing things.

I was honestly surprised when I found out this was Stephen King’s work. I’d seen and read a lot of his usual fare (my first taste of him was Carrie), and while there are some terrifying moments like Andy becoming the target of the Sisters, most of the tale is character-driven. Having Red as the point-of-view character allows the audience to observe Andy from a point one step removed from the man, even as we cheer on his efforts to overcome the institution’s restrictions. The main circle of convicts that the narrative follows over 20 years are mostly sympathetic despite their crimes, and as they start to look to Andy as a beacon of hope, we look to him as well: his unbreakable spirit offers us guidance for the times when circumstances seem hopeless. In other words, The Shawshank Redemption is spiritually the complete opposite of The Butterfly Effect. Both movies offer a protagonist who is repeatedly beaten down, but only one ultimately overcomes.

Of course, because it’s stupid to hate an institution, even one as intrinsically oppressive as a prison, the movie offers two groups of antagonists on whom we can focus our hate: The corrupt warden, whose every effort seems angled towards breaking the collective spirit of the inmates (and Andy in particular), and the Sisters, a gang of prison rapists who naturally target the fresh-faced Andy when he first arrives. Of course, this isn’t to say that the two antagonist groups are necessarily working to parallel purposes, as once Andy starts to become useful to the Warden, the Sisters’ reign of terror is brought to a swift – and brutal – end. Both the Warden and the Sisters feel like an intrinsic part of Shawshank, like natural predators in the prison environment, and they are the worst kind of douchebag that can be found in any environment. Specifically, they do what they do because they know they can get away with it, making their respective comeuppances that much more satisfying.

This movie will be an unexpected surprise for those familiar with Stephen King horror: a deep, inspiring story about one man’s unbreakable spirit in a setting designed to trap both body and soul within inescapable walls. Absolutely watch this movie.

1408 (2007)


Ah, Stephen King.

In the thirty-mumble years he’s been writing horror, a lot of his work has naturally been adapted to the screen. The results have been… mixed. At the high end we find The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, the latter of which scared the everloving piss out of its audience and remains a classic in its genre. At the low end we have movies like Maximum Overdrive, The Langoliers, and Children of the Corn.

I am happy to say that 1408 is at the upper end of this spectrum.

Released in 2007, 1408 stars John “Say Anything” Cusack and Samuel L. “Snakes on a Plane” Jackson, with Tony “Hey It’s That Guy” Shalhoub in a minor role. It was directed by Mikael Håfström and adapted from King’s short story of the same name.

Mike Enslin (Cusack) is a horror writer who travels across the country investigating so-called “haunted” sites, documenting his experiences and rating each one on his “Shiver” scale from one to ten skulls. However, he has become cynical and jaded, failing to observe any genuine hauntings amid a lot of hype and atmosphere offered by otherwise unnoticed flyspecks wanting to drum up business. This changes when he receives in his usual pile of mailed suggestions one entry that piques his interest – a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel, inscribed with a warning: “Don’t stay in 1408.” Of course, this is the equivalent of saying to anyone in a horror movie “Don’t go in the woods,” “Don’t investigate that spooky house,” and especially “Don’t read the demon summoning spell in that book bound in human skin and then record it for the next bunch of unlucky campers to stumble across and start everything all over again. YOU. DUMBASS.” So naturally Mike wants to stay in 1408.

To his surprise, not only does the staff of the Dolphin not welcome the stay of a pseudo-famous writer in the infamous 1408, but the manager, Gerald Olin (Jackson) actively tries to discourage him, showing him photographs and news clippings of all the suicides (lots) and accidental deaths (fewer, but still statistically high) that occurred in the room, each one occurring within an hour of the victim’s arrival. Olin asserts that there is nothing in the room – the room itself is malevolent. Mike is impressed by all the trouble Olin is going through to warn him about this scary scary haunting, and decides to stay anyway. Finally, Olin acquiesces, and Mike gets his hotel room.

And Mike discovers that Olin was absolutely right.

This movie is unique amongst haunting stories in that there is, as Olin makes clear, no actual concrete presence in the room, no phantom or demon for the audience to hate. It’s just a hotel room, and so the audience rides along with Mike’s building frustration and fraying sanity as the room drags him kicking and screaming into the darkest corners of his own troubled psyche, forcing him to confront the death of his daughter Katie (of some unspecified illness) a year before, and his subsequent estrangement from his wife. The room’s visions are unbearably cruel, soon seizing on Mike’s powerlessness to save his family, and twist the knife over and over while Mike struggles to outwait an hour-long countdown (helpfully provided by the clock radio in the room), hoping against hope that when the hour is up, the room will be done with him, while intermittently being taunted by the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” as the leitmotif of unfathomable evil.

I haven’t seen many movies that manage to pull off the evil genius loci effectively, but 1408 manages pretty well. The idea of being trapped in a confined area that hates you shovels on the paranoia fuel in a way not seen since the Wall Monsters of early D&D. More than that, it can dig into your mind and conjure up the most traumatic memories you have, meaning you have no defense because it’s like being tortured by your own brain. More than that, 1408 will happily put you in an endless feedback loop of your own worst fears, but it won’t kill you. Oh no. That would be too easy. It makes you kill yourself, like the unholy spawn of Jigsaw and the Overlook Hotel.

John Cusack certainly had his work cut out for him, carrying the bulk of the action opposite an evil hotel room, but he pulled it off. As the room hits him with more and more nightmares, you really get a sense that rather than being the two-dimensional jerk he might have been in a lesser movie, Enslin is a real person, with a real history and genuine reasons for what he does. On some level he wants to believe in an afterlife, because then he has a chance to see Katie again, but as an atheist he can’t even allow himself this solace. And good old Sam Jackson, playing a character originally described as a white middle-aged British man, is comfortably no-nonsense in his relatively brief role as the guardian of his hotel guests and the last barrier between Mike and yet another boring stay in a not-haunted room monstrous, mind-bending psychological torture.

All in all, while the premise is very simple, the execution is brilliantly done, using little details to mess with the viewer’s mind just as the room messes with Mike’s. While the “haunted hotel” thing has already been done by King, here the scares are condensed to a single room, offering a more claustrophobic setting and tenser atmosphere as its hapless victim slowly goes maybe-crazy drowning in his own fears and anxieties. Just try not to rent it next time you’re traveling abroad.