While the majority of the American moviegoing public took in family fare like Enchanted, our humble party was compelled to check out Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist. We figured that Darabont would once again mine Stephen King’s humanism for benign and competent cinematic fare — a la Shawshank and The Green Mile — and that all this would once again make us feel relatively sanguine about the human spirit. How wonderfully wrong we were!
What we experienced instead was an unexpectedly feral allegory of post-9/11 America set, like Dawn of the Dead, in a consumerist center (no accident perhaps that it’s one of those supermarkets with a late-1970’s aesthetic) and once again reminding us that the horror genre, by way of its speculative format, may be more capable in revealing truths about the human condition than some of the forthcoming squeaky-clean Oscar contenders. There were vicious tendrils, giant monsters that dwarfed even my imagination when I read “The Mist” years ago as a teenager, fundamentalist nuts, graphic lacerations, and one of the most brutal finales I’ve seen in a Hollywood horror film in quite some time. That such a brass-balls flick came not from the capably savage hands of Eli Roth or Guillermo del Toro, but from the warm-hearted Frank Darabont — never particularly known for his gore — was especially admirable. If the intensity wasn’t on the level of Cronenberg or Argento, The Mist put The Majestic, that naive and dreadful stab at the Capraesque, well out of my mind. As the body count continued to tally up, as good people were killed (including children!), and as King’s novella was wryly recontextualized for our terrifying modern age, I couldn’t help but wonder if the violence had been coaxed out of Darabont by executive producer Harvey Weinstein, who told Darabont that if he did not go the distance, he was a coward.
Whatever the circumstances, The Mist may very well be one of the most quietly subversive movies of the year. Roger Ebert is wrong to pooh-pooh the absurd storyline. The explanation for the titular fog is as convincing as a bad pulp tale from the 1940s, but this is not why one watches this movie. Aside from his usual stock character actors (including William Sadler), Darabont has, for the most part, cast second-tier actors who are not so easily identified. There isn’t a big name actor here to distract us from Darabont’s inverted take on populism. The movie is, instead, a portrait of Americans who want to be good and kind to each other, but who remain incapable of such basic decency without material comforts. Respect for other differences, however loathsome, are the first to go when presented with a terrifying threat and when the true nature of military conquest is revealed. And consider the way in which the audience’s expectations are tampered with. Darabont, knowing full well that the audience is screaming “Get the fuck out!” at the top of their lungs (the audience I saw this with certainly did), keeps his characters lingering in ghastly scenarios about twenty seconds longer than the audience expects them to leave. This is cheap but effective suspense, but it has the added symbolic value of revealing a slow and stigmatized America incapable of reacting smartly to trauma. There is also the manner in which one of the main human antagonists is disposed of. Yes, we’re all cheering the death. (Indeed, each gunshot was cheered on by the audience, myself included.) But in doing so, I couldn’t help but feel that I was proving Darabont’s point. Watching this flick, we think that we’re civilized by way of being removed from the fantastic environment. But I felt deeply ashamed at celebrating the slaughter. However execrable the character, is this not the same savage instinct that we’re seeing portrayed on the screen? In light of the casual manner in which a television audience applauds Kiefer Sutherland willfully breaking the Geneva Convention in waterboarding a suspect, Darabont’s clear awareness of the audience here is striking.
The Mist is a major step forward for Darabont. In addition to finding his cojones, Darabont, known for his static shots, has not only shifted his cinematography to a more shaky Battle of Algiers milieu, but his camera frequently zooms in on the people, suggesting that we’re incapable of examining our own inadequacies. The enemy, it would appear, is us. Sure, it’s ultimately something of a replay of the Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” but Darabont has injected some class prejudice. (I particularly liked how the attorney character was African-American and how he’s the one to call the others “hicks.”)
He’s also merged an old-fashioned sensibility with a carnal and contemporary one. Aside from his decision to go ten more intense steps beyond the novella’s finale, he is also, at times, resolutely faithful to the text, even reproducing some of King’s more ludicrous dialogue (“There’s something in the mist!”). The tentacle does indeed smash a bag of dog chow upon its first appearance. This was one of the more absurd touches in King’s novella, but in Darabont’s hands, it manages to work, in large part because Darabont has made the tentacle a large and imposing thing that will rip out your guts in seconds.
I was also impressed by the attention to the mist monster ecosystem. Large and beautiful insects affix themselves to the supermarket window, attracted to the glass the way that moths flock to light, only to be snapped up ruthlessly by gargantuan winged beasts. Nothing here is quite what we expect, which is saying a good deal in light of the fact that the story is essentially a familiar one.
Perhaps I’m particularly crazy about The Mist because it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. Frankly, I’ve seen a lot of bullshit at the movies this year. But The Mist is an old-fashioned horror movie, eliciting convincing performances from most of the cast. But, most importantly, it’s a movie in which the acting and the atmosphere is prioritized over the effects. As Hollywood attempts to extract twelve dollars from your wallet for movies that are nothing more than style over substance, I find it amazing that it’s come to B-movies like The Mist instead of well-intentioned misfires like Rendition to get us to feel frightened and all too aware of contemporary horrors. Sincerity, it seems, has become a groundbreaking commodity in the cinema.
Damn,now that’s a review! I’ve been a longtime fan of Stephen King’s novella(even own an anthology that published a slightly version of the story)and was keeping my fingers crossed that the film adaptation would do it justice. I agree with you totally about the horror genre being more effective in getting to the core of current social fears.
Metaphor can be ten times more powerful than direct statement in art-for example,I’ve been reading Ken Follett’s World Without End and one of the major plot points is the collapse of a bridge which devestates the community and sets a number of other factors into motion. During a few chapters,it occured to me that alot of this had 9/11 overtures(not saying that is what Follett intended but it slowly came to me that way)and intentional or not,the book was saying a hell of alot more about such a life altering experience that many of the other “serious” novels dealing with the subject.
So,even tho I wouldn’t mind seeing Enchanted,The Mist looks like a real winner and I’m glad that Darabont and company did it up right.
Very nice! I can’t wait to see what Darabont’s done with King’s work again. 🙂
Perhaps horror is best served when it’s used, not just as an examination of the human condition through the intense focal lens of the extraterrestrially inexplicable, but also as social commentary, allegory and cultural parody. It can wholly confirm what we find ourselves only half-heartedly muttering under our collective breath; that monstrosity and humanity are separated by an all-too-thin line.
Thanks for the review, Ed. I missed 1408 but I think I’ll try to get into the theatres for “The Mist”.
One more thing: as for the original novella, I too was impressed by the otherworldly ecosystem brought on by the Mist and the rip in the fabric of reality that Project Arrowhead unwittingly opened (similar to the quality of otherworldly door-opening the wanna-be Buick 8 in “From A Buick 8”, although on a much grander scale).
Despite all the clatter and debate of the hapless scions of humanity trapped within the supermarket, the cold reality is they aren’t fighting any kind of encroaching evil. Those things going bump in the mist outside couldn’t give a crap about Mrs. Carmody and her apocalyptic rantings, or the dwindling food supply or the sheer terror of the folks in the supermarket; those things are animals, doing what animals do. Humans just happen to be in the way.
That’s perhaps one of the scarier things to ponder: to not be an opponent, prey or even considered: we’re simply in the way.
Wow. I just got back from the local late show, and my feeling about it was quite different. Even for a B-movie, I was disappointed, and to be honest I found the post-9/11 overtones overwrought, ponderous, and facile. (A better horror allegory this year, albeit of Iraq: 28 Weeks Later.) I actually don’t remember King’s novella all that well. It’s been at least 15 years since I read it — so maybe — even probably — it’s the fault of the source material. But this played like Darabont hasn’t ventured into Red State America himself in a good long while. Poor Marcia Gay Harden’s character was a shrill cartoon, and Bill Sadler and the rest of the regular (malleable) folk were so ridiculously one-note they might as well have started the film carrying torches and pitchforks.
I liked the Cthulhuian overtones (and the hoofed thing). I liked the doggy food bag. The ending was a bit of a curveball, but it also felt like a Twilight Zone gimmick, and totally unearned.
But, hey, to each his own. I will put money that yours is the only review of this flick to compare it to The Battle of Algiers, tho’. 🙂
Kevin: If “28 Weeks Later” is as much the allegory as you say it is (obviously, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing), I’ll have to check it out. Personally, I had no problem with the “overwrought” nature of the film, in large part because “The Mist” signaled its intentions from the get-go with the “Dark Tower” painting and the tree smashing through the window. But I will concede a bit on some of the extended dialogue scenes in the film, which were a bit tedious. But I had a good time, in large part because there hasn’t been an old-fashioned Hollywood horror movie like this in ages.
I haven’t seen the film, but I did read the story about three years ago, and the thing that really stuck with me (and that I think about, on average, at least once a month) is Drayton and his son sitting in the truck on the blocked road to their house, and Drayton trying to sort out if there’s any way they can find out if his wife is OK. It just strikes me as such an emotional quandary: his first responsibility is to his son, but she is his son’s mother, and if alive would be herself of two minds about whether she would want him to risk getting to her.
The ending that is in the film (I’ve read spoilers) sounds like it dispenses with that plot point. Overall the end sounds somewhat effective, but also a bit willfully cruel. I acknowledge that it may be different in the actual viewing, of course!