Both as a writer and director, Frank Darabont seems to have an affinity for adapting Stephen King’s stories to the screen. He’s only performed both functions for three feature-length films—The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Green Mile (1999), and The Mist (2007)—but all three have met with well-deserved general and critical acclaim. I would agree, however, with those who’ve argued that The Mist, based on a King novella, is clearly not at the level of Darabont’s previous two directorial efforts. Perhaps that’s because it was something different from what Darabont’s specialty appeared to be—that is, it wasn’t a prison drama set as the backdrop for an old-fashioned tale of hope and morality, but rather a technically impressive, yet somewhat clichéd, scarefest that seems to borrow its concept of an evil-bearing mist from John Carpenter’s The Fog and its theme of isolation and entrapment from Kubrick’s The Shining. Nonetheless, The Mist combines these two props so artfully that there’s a good chance it will keep your Pandora’s-Box curiosity long occupied with wondering the extent of what lies within the mysterious enveloping cloud.
In typical King fashion, however, the film focuses more on who than what. After a violent thunderstorm causes extensive damage to a a small town in Maine, some residents and visiting out-of-town folk make a rush on a nearby supermarket to stock up on supplies. While the cash register is busy ringing up items, a terrified man, Jim Miller (played by Jeffrey DeMunn, a veteran of Stephen King films who also starred in The Green Mile and Storm of the Century), with a gash in his forehead comes running in screaming about a mist that’s converging on them and about there being something in the mist that attacked him.
This sets the stage for the film’s central exploration of mob mentality and how a group of people will react in response to their individual anxieties and fears—a favorite subject of King’s that was also the main thrust in The Stand and Rose Red. Among the herd of captives are professional artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his whimpering, pasty-faced kid Billy (Thomas Gamble); along with their neighbor, a lawyer named Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), they witness the mist descending on the town from beyond the lake. There are also a couple of school teachers, an old crotchety one (Frances Sternhagen) and a young pretty one (Laurie Holden), both of whom manage to retain their composure quite well during the ordeal. Then there’s Jim Grondin, a foolhardy auto mechanic whose near-death experience causes him to turn to the dark side. And let’s not forget about the friendly supermarket staff like Norm (Chris Owen), a bag boy who fatefully decides to be the first one to venture into the mist, and Ollie, the store’s namby-pamby assistant manager who nevertheless turns out to be a sharp shooter of Dirty Harry’s caliber in a pinch.
Most important, however, to the film’s message is Mrs. Carmody, a present-day Jonathan Edwards who rails at her co-captives to heed the law of the Good Book and forsake their lives of sin. As the mist reveals more and more of the horrors that lie within it, so too the power of her demagoguery increases. Through her influence, the multitude in the supermarket is separated into two rival factions, with artist David leading a small band that also includes the two teachers and manager Ollie, while the less educated (such as Jim Grondin) are lured astray by Carmody’s forked tongue bidding them to attack those who choose to brave the mist. Carmody preys on their latent fear that the temerity and hubris of courting death will incur the wrath of God. The escape attempt of David and his followers thus becomes dual-layered as a flight from both supernatural forces and from this dark bloodlust that lies dormant in humanity, waiting to be awoken.
Painted in brutal lines? Certainly. But also viscerally exciting. With his gift for pacing, Darabont leaves you wondering about how things will turn out for the characters right up until David’s gut-wrenching cries at the conclusion. No, it’s not too subtle to see prehistoric-sized flies and spiders, as well as pterodactyl-like creatures, coming at you, but I have to say it’s kinda freaky to see them suddenly appear from their misty haunts. There is also the customary horror fodder of gore and dismemberment, notably a pair of legs that were cut from their torso when one of the intrepid chanced the unknown. Yet the visuals and splatterfest thrills don’t overpower the film’s reminder of the evils of herd consciousness that underlie many of history’s most heinous acts of wickedness. (Mrs. Carmody’s claims that God was speaking through her made me think of David Koresh.) Even if The Mist fails to achieve the greatness of Darabont’s masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption (so few films do), it raises apt questions about the evils that lie in wait for a world in which dogma and instinct lie unchecked by reason.
Joe’s Grade: B