Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Stephen King's The Mist is another of the author's horror excursions to revisit the monster and suspense thrillers of his childhood. A cross section of terrified Americans barricades itself in a supermarket while ominous forces gather beyond, hidden by a thick mist. The crisis brings out both the best and worst in the defenders, dividing the group against itself and forcing it to face an outcome that is anything but hopeful.
Stephen King's seemingly limitless supply of horror tales are often translated indifferently to the screen, but The Mist has been put together by one of his most successful interpreters, Frank Darabont of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Darabont has maintained an interest in 50s-style horror fantasies; he also wrote the so-so 1988 remake of The Blob and the 1989 Cronenberg sequel The Fly II. The Mist can be described as a vintage Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode writ large, with an emphasis on creeping insectoid terror and graphic bloodshed. Darabont's direction brings out some good performances but his script is dramatically uneven. We're introduced to a narrow selection of obvious types -- obnoxious lawyer, religious zealot, etc.. When the tension rises their predictable behavior is often laughable. Yet Darabont works up considerable concern for his sympathetic heroes.
A freak storm damages the lake house of artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane). He goes to town with his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and unpleasant neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) to get supplies. No sooner do they reach the local supermarket than a dense mist envelops the town, terrifying the twenty or so locals and out-of-towners trapped inside. Dan Miller (Jeffrey DeMunn) runs in screaming, "There's something in the mist!" and the group begins to argue about the nature of their predicament. Local Jim Grondin (William Sadler) is skeptical when David claims that 'something' is outside the freight dock's steel door. Giant thorned tentacles drag away the young Norm (Chris Owen), but Brent Norton scoffs at David's claim and leads a small group away into the fog. As the terror grows the market comes under siege by horrible things never before seen, and David worries that he'll never see his wife again. But almost as menacing as the creatures outside is the intolerant Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden). She interprets the admittedly bizarre phenomena as evidence of God's wrath, and rallies many of her frightened neighbors into believing that survival is possible only by destroying non-believers: David and others that oppose her intolerant raving.
Once upon a time, monster movies were about the monsters. These days the big shows (Spielberg's War of the Worlds, Cloverfield) are being 'explained' as directly related to society's anxiety over the 9/11 attacks. The messages in old Cold War classics like Gojira and The Day the Earth Stood Still were more or less optional subtext: "nuclear war is inhumane", "disarmament is essential". A reasonably tightly scripted survival story, The Mist begs to be interpreted as a comment on America under siege and divided by hostility and intolerance. As such, it exploits the audience's unconscious fear of political terror using monster thrills that haven't changed since the 1960s. People just don't feel as secure as they used to be, and these scary movies tap their unspoken fears.
The real subtext in these new thrillers is the idea that American Immunity From All Woes is not a law of the universe. Say it ain't so! Stephen King chides the complacent dimwits that refuse to abandon petty local tiffs even when their lives are on the line. Instead of forming a united front against the threat, they immediately lash out at each other in a barrage of arguments and discussion. The dialogue for these exchanges varies from good to poor: "What's out there?" / "It's Death." The unhappy neighbor thinks that the emergency is a cruel joke intended to humiliate him personally. A workman resents being told what to do by uppity college guys from out of town. A resentful Jesus freak seizes on the calamity as an opportunity to achieve power and respect, and becomes a religious maniac. The strong lash out at each other and the meek fall in line behind a 'leader' willing to take responsibility for them. The movie is intent on the message that people are no damn good. At the first sign of danger, the best thing to do is to ditch one's neighbors and go it alone. Forget about helping other people, the film says, because it's not worth the effort.
People coming apart under pressure are not easy subjects to dramatize, and the arguing and obstructionism among the besieged in the grocery store can be tiresome. Why do people deny that a monster attack occurred, when they must have heard the screaming in the back room? Why doesn't David Drayton immediately drag the tentacle tip back to the others, to illustrate my case. That opportunity is lost when the monster flesh suddenly disintegrates into black ooze, in approved 50s Sci-Fi fashion. 1
Most monster movies celebrate the good that comes when people in danger band together. The new Cloverfield has a nihilistic attitude but its young New Yorkers band together when the going gets tough. Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds has a lot in common with The Mist, including an hysterical woman who explains the bird attacks by accusing a stranger of witchcraft. Faced by unexplainable terrors, the residents of Bodega Bay increase their chances for survival by form meaningful relationships.
The Mist mostly punishes its characters, good, bad and indifferent. Things get worse no matter what they do. The script undercuts our notion that attractive characters have better survival odds, although that quality is no longer a rarity. At one point the unlikable Bible-beater is 'miraculously' spared, an unexpected touch that, like the demonic appearance of some of the monsters, supports the notion that the horror may indeed be Biblical in origin. Darabont eventually settles on a tired explanation for his monsters: as in the George Romero zombie movies, an evil military project has provoked the calamity by experimenting with 'doors to other dimensions'.
The movie whips up an engaging horror tale, only to betray its audience with a flat and unnecessarily downbeat ending. The hero's final action goes against the fairly good logic behind his previous decisions. We don't see these five survivors as ready to take such a drastic step; the situation just doesn't seem that dire. Theatrical audiences were left feeling cheated, as casually nihilistic endings like this can be just as trite as happy ones, if not carefully crafted. The Mist isn't as annoying as one of M. Night Shyamalan's witless suspense thrillers, but it still feels like an exciting monster siege strained by the need to be significant.
The monsters are impressive Lovecraft-ian demon-things that might indeed have strayed in from another dimension. When things get gory, it's always to serve a specific plot point. Stephen King cherry-picks good ideas from older films like The Birds and The Fog. Three vintage English Sci-Fi films also come to mind. The attack of the insectoid creatures resembles the brain onslaught in Fiend without a Face, which are incidentally materialized by a goof at an experimental military installation. The idea of inter-dimensional infestation sounds a lot like the dime store rationale behind the Cosmic Monsters (The Strange World of Planet X), and the idea of tentacled horrors hidden in moving clouds bears the fingerprints of the superior The Crawling Eye (The Trollenberg Terror). The finale would seem a better-financed return to the conclusion of the All-American atom hysteria movie Panic in Year Zero!
The Mist has exceptional acting, with Thomas Jane (The Thin Red Line) impressive as the responsible father. Marcia Gay Harden gives the broadly written Mrs. Carmody her best shot. Carmody is set up as an 'audience hate' target, but she's never completely ludicrous. Laurie Holden is solid as a strong-willed teacher, Frances Sternhagen keeps a level head and William Sadler is suitably craven. Andre Braugher makes his pain-in-the-butt lawyer into a convincing jerk. But the hands-down winner for MVP of the supermarket siege is Toby Jones' assistant manager, Ollie Weeks. Ollie may get no respect from his boss, but he's the guy for us -- helpful, clear-headed and a dead shot. We'll miss him in The Mist II: The Murder Trial of David Drayton.
The double-DVD set of Stephen King's The Mist comes with plenty of extras. The personable Frank Darabont is everywhere, contributing a commentary and participating in all of the featurettes. Some are new and a couple of short pieces are recycled from 'Webisodes", online diary entries promoting the film's production. The behind-the-scenes pieces touch the expected bases and introduce us to some of the film's interesting cast members. In the mini-docus coveing the film's impressive visual effects, the clever mechanical tricks are most fun, especially when we see a fellow manipulating a writhing tentacle with a joystick as big as a railroad switch lever.
Darabont also comments on a selection of deleted scenes, mostly trims of dialogue exchanges that went on too long. An additional featurette celebrates poster artist Drew Struzan, whose work appears in the first scene. Three trailers are provided.
The most interesting 'extra' on the second disc is an entire second encoding of the film, in B&W. Frank Darabont appears in an explanatory intro to say that he simply likes the film better without color, and is happy to be able to indulge his wishes on the DVD. The B&W version doesn't simply switch off the chroma; it's darker and often grainier, as if Darabont were after a Night of the Living Dead look. The comparison is a good opportunity to discover if the altered format does indeed provoke a different reaction -- I certainly respond in a special way to creepy B&W chillers like Carnival of Souls and Dementia. Of course, the logical next step for Darabont and The Mist is to take his B&W version to Ray Harryhausen, and colorize it!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mist rates:
Movie: Very Good until the last 90 seconds
Supplements: 8 Deleted Scenes with Commentary, Commentary with Frank Darabont. 2-Disc Version extras: Alternate B&W Presentation of the Film, Booklet; Featurettes: When Darkness Came: The Making Of The Mist; Taming The Beast: The Making of Scene 35, Monsters Among Us: A Look At The Creature FX; The Horror Of It All: The Visual FX Of The Mist and Drew Struzan: Appreciation Of An Artist.
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: March 20, 2008
1. Although it has its own problems, I've always liked the handling of the initial threat in John Carpenter's The Thing. Kurt Russell hears ungodly howling coming from the dog pen, and what does he do? He hits the fire alarm immediately and alerts the whole camp. None of this creeping around looking for trouble in the dark. No arguments about whether the menace is really a menace. The Thing is placed out in the open immediately, giving the audience the hope that fast thinking might be able to successfully deal with it.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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