Halloween is a special time. It is the one time of year when everyone gives of themselves. What they give can be anything from candy to a scare. We thought this October, we here at Mania would give you 31 Horror Films for the 31 days of October. Now, many of you will know these films. Some of you, may not. Get ready for 31 days of Horror Films that will run gauntlet from scary to campy, from horrific to down right ridiculous. Happy Halloween from Mania!
And now, a full-bore belt to the chops, courtesy of Frank Darabont and Stephen King. Happy Thanksgiving; don’t forget to remind yourself that there’s still sweetness and light in this world when the screening is done. The Mist certainly ranks in the upper echelons of King adaptations, but considering its relentlessly bleak tone, that may not earn it many fans… at least at first. Darabont has an uncanny connection to King’s particular ethos, however, and the devoted accuracy with which he tackles this tale ultimately pays chilling and unforgettable dividends.
It’s all the more impressive because it remains a giant bug movie at heart (or, as the author once put it, “what The Alamo would have been like if directed by Burt I. Gordon”). But like all good horror stories, the monsters are less important than the way they affect the psychological states of their victims. In this case, suburban paranoia and primitive savagery conspire to create far deeper terrors than the creatures which emerge from the titular fog. It begins when a bad storm in rural Maine knocks out the power and sends the locals scurrying to the grocery store for supplies. Their numbers include nice-guy artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his son (Nathan Gamble), along with his prickly next-door neighbor (Andre Braugher) who accompanies them as a awkward attempt to mend fences. But wouldn’t you know it, nearby meddling in Things Man Was Not Meant to Know — damaged by the storm along with everything else — sends a deep white mist spilling over the town, shrouding the streets in silence and reducing vision to a few feet. Things lurk within it: nasty, spiky, venom-encrusted things which quickly turn the grocery store into a besieged fortress and its inhabitants into a de facto community forced to band together to survive.
The horror trappings make a visceral connection to fundamental fears (if you don’t like insects, stay the hell away from this one), while retaining just enough monster-movie goofiness to keep energy levels high. Darabont works the basic equations of the genre quite well. The mist limits our perceptions the same way dark shadows would in an older movie, letting spooky sounds and unsettling implications fill in the details far more gruesomely than any overplayed reveals. We see the monsters in bits and pieces, punctuated by dripping gore that arrives just often enough to properly jolt us out of complacency. The creatures are all designed with strangely similar features, positing them as members of a entire ecosystem. In that sense, they’re not actively malevolent: merely wild things trying to survive as best they can. Though their aggression and toxicity knock us humans several notches down the food chain, they possess no more true evil than a shark or grizzly bear.
The Mist leaves that for the store’s hapless occupants. Darabont has always understood King’s knack for characterization, and here creates a sympathetic and believable group of protagonists utterly unequipped to deal with what’s happening to them. We like these folks and they try to do the right thing, but they make mistakes sometimes… and when the lights go out, they prove very quick to turn against each other. Drayton is soon joined by the store’s assistant manager Ollie (Toby Jones) and pretty schoolteacher Amanda Dumfries (Laurie Holden) as the voices of rationality. They must struggle against a crowd of increasingly frightened sheep under the sway of the town head case (Marcia Gay Harden), whose apocalyptic prophesies and literal interpretation of the Old Testament suddenly seem a lot less psychotic than they once did.
Darabont focuses on their collective efforts to maintain some semblance of humanity as the comforting world outside suddenly grows some very sharp teeth. As terrifying as events become (both within the store and without), The Mist continually reminds us that it takes far less to let the veneer of civilization slip. Would we ever stand together if it meant nothing more than dying in a group? Would we cavalierly defend our fellow man if it meant being noisily devoured in his place? The film scores its best moments in pondering those kind of questions. It’s rarely pleasant, to be sure, but it retains a hypnotic fascination, and for all the creepy crawlies running around outside, it never surrenders its sense of plausibility.
Then there’s the ending, which is already generating buzz, and which should be lauded for its unflinching nature. Some may not like it, but it proves quite fitting for the message Darabont wishes to send, and haunts the memory long after the theater lights come back on. It works in part because we care about the characters involved, and because we’ve spent two hours being terrified and traumatized and well-meaning and courageous right along with them. You don’t see that very often in King adaptations (or any horror movie for that matter), and when it shows up here, it reminds us why so many people keep buying his books. The Mist succeeds because it understands his strengths and delivers them straight up without once losing its nerve.
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