Movies based on Stephen King stories are like rivers in the old west. You never know how deep they are or what’s waiting just below the surface. Often, they’re not very deep, choosing instead to try and slavishly adhere to the printed word. The results range from good (Kubrick’s The Shining) to bad (King’s version of The Shining). And then there are the Stephen King stories adapted by Frank Darabont. These are in a whole different class and they are very, very good. The Mist, the latest collaboration between these two, easily joins its siblings, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, as a film which out shines its source material.
The plot is typical King: Group of disparate people are trapped somewhere and have to fight off some sort of creepy bad guy. In this case, it’s the day after a huge storm blows through a small Maine village (natch), knocking out the power, and David Drayton (Thomas Jane) grabs his young son and heads to the supermarket to get some food and supplies. It doesn’t take very long before a man with a bloody nose (Jeffrey DeMunn) comes running in, screaming about something in the mist, which is now completely enveloping the supermarket, trapping a group inside. The group consists of a wonderful cross-section of humanity (albeit a typical King collection of misfits, oddballs and religious fanatics) who all must pull together in order to survive – or at least make it through the night. This is where King movies usually fall down. When he writes these scenarios in prose, he is able to delve deeper into the characters’ motivations and drives, removing them from the stereotypes they could be. Of course, this is also what makes King immensely filmable; on screen, directors and screenwriters can just use the archetypes to quickly sketch the characters and then are able to devote the rest of their time to the plot, which is much more important, especially in horror films.
This is why Darabont is so good at filming King. He understands the need for real people to populate the horror filled landscapes. Without them, the movie is just two hours of screaming and running from half-hidden shapes, revealed at the end. With The Mist, Darabont stumbles a little near the beginning, tripping over a few plot driven character faux pas (known in the parlance as the Idiot Plot – where otherwise rational characters do things they can only justify through author contrivance) but quickly rights his ship and carries us through a terrifying landscape of giant, Lovecraft inspired creepy crawlies.
I should point out, this is not a “scary” movie, per se, it’s a “horror” film in the best sense of the word. It doesn’t rely solely on things jumping out at you to make its effect known. Instead, like a good Hitchcock thriller, Darabont lets you see the monsters; he WANTS you to know what’s coming and that knowledge has a power far scarier than a sudden jump. By the time the film reaches its devastating conclusion, you can see the brutality coming like a train on the tracks and there is absolutely nothing you can do to derail it.
Performance-wise, Jane is serviceable as Drayton, embodying the everyman we all wish we could be in times of crises. Marcia Gay Harden (whom, I must confess, I don’t generally like) is effective as Mrs. Carmody, a religious fanatic who succeeds in converting an alarming number of her fellow grocery store refugees. It is with her character that Darabont (and King) are really making their boldest statements. The journey from convinced skeptic to converted believer is alarmingly short in the face of irrational fear. They are able to show, in microcosm, how terror can be used to control a populace, no matter how educated or rational they might be. Rounding out the fine cast is William Sadler (a Darabont mainstay), Andre Braugher (who, unfortunately plays a large part in the Idiot Plot) and Frances Sternhagen. Special mention should be made of Toby Jones, who provides the most human performance of the show.
When all is said and done, The Mist is worth venturing out into the cold night. Just make sure you have a flashlight for the ride home.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)