November 26, 2007

Movie Review: The Mist

Stephen King adaptations are spotty at best. For every successful conversion there are a handful that fail to live up to expectations. I am a fan of King's work, although I have not read any of his novels in years. The Stand is my favorite novel, one that I have read at least a dozen times. For every Carrie or Misery there is a The Mangler or Sleepwalkers. So, when it was announced that The Mist would be getting the big screen treatment, I greeted the news with trepidation. The story has all of the elements to make a super-creepy feature, but it could just as easily go down the road of camp crap. I have never been able to put my finger on it, but it strikes me that King's work is very difficult to adapt and seems to work much better on the page than on the screen. This thought has never struck the Hollywood minds that see King's name as synonymous with cash. Enter Frank Darabont. He has crafted two of the more successful King adaptations of recent memory, including the very highly regarded The Shawshank Redemption. So, with Darabont on board it would seem that there was a better than even chance the film would be halfway decent.

I've never read The Mist, which was originally published in an anthology called Dark Forces in 1980 and then as part of King's Skeleton Crew collection in 1985. My first experience came on CD in the early 1990's. The story was turned into an audio play and released in "3D Sound" that was meant to be listened to through headphones. It was a really creepy performance and showed that the story could work effectively when not confined to the page. The Frank Darabont scripted take on the tale remains true to the story, while it is expanded and changed slightly, including a new ending. The end result of the conversion is a film that brings new definition to the word bleak and provides the cinema going audience with one of the finest pure horror experiences of the year.

Many horror films are from a formula, and that is not always a bad thing. Sure, working from a pre-mapped out framework can hinder the development of your original work, but it does not have to. The Mist has a familiar setup. A group of strangers become trapped in a single location and must work together if they are to survive as they are beset by some unseen horror outside. It has proven successful ever since George Romero mined it for all it was worth in his pioneering horror film Night of the Living Dead. Now, while the setup is familiar, that is where similarities really end. It is not so much about the setup as it is about how the various characters deal with the encroaching evil and with each other. It is in this that The Mist is a smashing success.

The setting is a small, close-knit town in Maine. One night, a powerful storm rages through leaving a path of destruction in its wake. While David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his family survey the damage, they notice a think mist resting ominously over a lake. David, his son Billy, and not-so-friendly neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) head into town to pick up some supplies. Once they arrive at the supermarket, the mist that was over the lake has seemingly followed them, blanketing the town in a fog that is impossible to see through. A man who runs into the store, bloodied and claiming that there is something in the mist also heralds this rolling in of the fog. This is where everything begins to go downhill.

It is at this point that the friendly facade of the small town is peeled back to reveal just what can happen in the face of the unknown and just how quickly society can regress allowing the more vocal doom-mongers a more readily agreeable flock to preach to. The locals and weekenders in the store split between the reasonable David and the religious zealot Ms. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden).

What sparks this split? Think about it. You are trapped inside a store, completely enveloped by an impenetrable mist, and someone has just told you that there is something out there. How long before society begins to breakdown? This is before it really takes that next step.

While in the storage room, attempting fix the generator, the back door is opened only to have this tentacles reach in and violently snatch away one of your own. Evidence of what is in the mist is now had, and life as you know it will never be the same.

Okay, forget about the details, what is important is how everything is handled. Therein lies the magic if The Mist. The core of the story is apocalyptic horror, or survival horror, whichever you prefer is fine with me as they both fit the bill rather nicely along with its cynical view of man's inhumanity to man when faced with a crisis of epic proportions.

On one side is David and his sensible desire to figure out what is going on outside prior to making hasty judgment. On the other is Ms. Carmody who sees the mist as the end of days, preaching to the converted with more and more fervor as the outside attacks commence. What exactly, Darabont and King are attempting to say about man's reactions and cruelty or the place of religious beliefs (extreme or otherwise), I am not sure. The more I think about it the more I do not really care. What really holds attention is the atmosphere and tension that is built, not to mention the insane appearances and chaos caused by the seemingly Lovecraft inspired beasties.

Frank Darabont realy delivers a bleak and cynical outlook. Will anyone be able to escape? How widespread is this mist? What are those creatures and where did they come from? Is the nearby military research base involved? Will we get any answers? Not terribly satisfying ones, I'm afraid. However, the lack of solid answers all plays into the overall effect of the terror inspired.

Then there is the ending. I will not reveal it here, suffice to say that it differs from the novella, and if you search around you will be able to find its description easy enough. What I will say is that I loved it. It may seem out of line with what had come before, but I did not feel that way, nor did I believe it offered up any easy answers. It is what it is, and considering the lack of big picture information throughout the film, I do not believe this to be the end. No, not by a long shot.

Bottomline. Amazingly tense and creepy film. It does not pull any punches with the blood and guts, but it is not gratuitous. It is a bleak film that follows through and does not go for the Hollywood ending. The performances are very good all around and the lack of signigficant score through the bulk works to effectively heighten the tension.

Highly Recommended.


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