The Eli Roths of the world? Ah, who needs 'em! They can keep their sadomasochism and pop culture aesthetics. Frank Darabont's "The Mist" is a return to form for the filmmaker and the brittle horror genre. It offers the viewer a disquieting Stephen King tale of survival and claustrophobia, while dusting off classic horror devices such as patience and suspense to manufacture something that's legitimately unsettling while retaining timeless audience-baiting mechanics.
When a storm wallops a small Maine town, David Drayton (Thomas Jane), his son, and a moody neighbor (Andre Braugher) head to the local grocery store for supplies. Once there, a strange mist rolls into town, bringing with it a terrifying monster threat that locks the shoppers inside the store. Unable to leave, the group soon breaks off into factions, one side (including Toby Jones and Laurie Holden) trying to figure out a survival plan and escape the mist through logic and reason, the other, led by Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), chooses to view the mist and the fury contained within as an incontrovertible representation of God's wrath on sinners.
After the 2001 bloated Capraesque misfire "The Majestic," writer/director Frank Darabont has come to revisit the world of Stephen King, the author who lent the filmmaker two titles met with great acclaim: "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile." The collaboration between the talents proves fruitful yet again in "The Mist."
Where Darabont excels is in his interpretation of King's text, protecting the author's tendency to provide dustings of stereotypes and clichés for the most immediate sympathetic responses. The film is a straightforward construct of small town rubes versus the lethal unknown, and Darabont's screenplay is quick to preserve the simplicity of the conflict and character interaction to best realize the panic of the story. For some, the use of "aw, shucks" dialogue and broad caricatures could very well be a turnoff. However, I adored the unsophisticated nature of the scripting, which in turns leads to a bottomless feeling of tension as the mist starts to reveal the nightmarish creatures contained within.
Violence is used sparingly, but effectively by Darabont, taking as much delight in the mental torture of the mist as he does in the bloodshed, which is found in wonderful abundance. There are two kinds of terror found in the picture: mob hysteria and the rampage of the creatures, who resemble locusts and spiders (shooting acidic webs). Both result in an impressive body count, but Darabont never goes overboard. "Mist" is portioned out carefully, building alarm as the hours tick by and the situation erodes from one of wonder and doubt to grim realization. It's suspenseful and scary, two elements not factoring into horror much these days.
The truth is, "The Mist" is a wolf in sheep's clothing. One walks into this thing with an expectation of monsters and carnage, and those quotas are filled with great panache (the CGI lacks gobs-o-money polish, yet it still works), but the reality is, Darabont is much more tuned into the religious overtones.
Stressing the point that "Mist" is fashioned from minimal characterizations, Harden's Mrs. Carmody is a zealot of the highest order; an agent of Jesus made up of fire, brimstone, and an entire serving of crazy. "Mist" uses Carmody as the villain of the piece, but also focuses on the strength of her fervor, as she comes to symbolize the need to belong at any cost during times of crisis, with people finding comfort in the strangest places. As the high priestess of the grocery store, Darabont suggests that Carmody's psychological sway and biblical wrath is perhaps more deadly than a monster invasion; a proper reflection in the light of current fanatical movements sweeping the planet.
"The Mist" surprises, angers, and delights with equal measure, but there's something romantic in the sucker punch Darabont offers in the final reel. Diverting from King's novella, the film's ending is even darker and less expected. It's a display of bravery unlike any major studio film in the last decade, daring to close the film on a disturbing note rather than a display of heroics. It's a gut-churner that flips "Mist" over from a lovely B-picture to a sobering descent into hell, challenging horror fans with a vision of gorgeous bleakness bereft of irony or smiles. It's an artistic choice that turns "The Mist" from a good film into a great one.
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