Synopsis: From legendary frightmaster Stephen King and Academy Award nominated director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) comes one of the most tense and terrifying films since The Shining. After a mysterious mist envelops a small New England town, a group of locals trapped in a supermarket must battle a siege of otherworldly creatures… and the fears that threaten to tear them apart. Starring Thomas Jane (The Punisher) and Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden (Mystic River) in one of the year’s most talked-about performances.
eyelights: the bone-chilling concept. the devastating ending. the character of Ollie Weaks. Frances Sternhagen’s presence. Nathan Gamble’s performance. the film’s message.
eyesores: Thomas Jane’s dry tears. the heavy-handed delivery of the message.
“Don’t go out there! There’s something in the mist!”
‘The Mist’ is a 2006 film that is based on a Stephen King novella which was first published in 1980 in a horror anthology called ‘Dark Forces’, then re-released in a King collection called ‘Skeleton Crew’. It revolves around a strange, impenetrable mist that pervades a small town, trapping the locals indoors – with our story mostly taking place in the town’s grocery store, where a large group try to assess the situation and figure out what to do next.
The tension begins to build when Dan Miller, comes running into the store shouting that there’s something dangerous in the mist, and that a few others were killed. Before anyone can go out to see if what he says is true, the mist sweeps in and covers the store, along with the whole area; it is now impossible to see any further than beyond the walkway right outside.
Shaken by this unusual happening, debates ensue about whether it’s safe to go out, with almost everyone staying put, out of fear. However, very soon they begin to suspect that Dan was telling the truth, that there is something out there. And it’s not good, not good at all. That’s when fissures begin to show, as the tension mounts and the group begin to pull in different directions.
Can they survive the mist, divided so?
Ollie: “Leave it alone, David. You can’t convince some people there’s a fire even when their hair is burning. Denial is a powerful thing.”
Our protagonist is David Drayton (played by Thomas Jane), an artist who, after a wicked storm tore through their house, went into town with his son to get some supplies. He is a rugged everyman with enough physical fortitude to handle the intense battles yet to come and resilient enough psychologically to also handle the dance of death that will be taking place inside the grocery store.
I simply adored that David is a motion picture poster artist and that they used the iconic art of Drew Struzan (incl. ‘The Thing’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘The Green Mile’ and ‘El laberinto del fauno‘) and a poster for ‘The Dark Tower’ – a Stephen King book that has not yet been made as a film. It was a nice wink at fans (one of many, as it turns out, since the film is littered with all sorts of nods to King and other works).
Thomas Jane is pretty decent as David, but I suspect that this depends on one’s appreciation of his acting ability. I’ve only seen him in select few roles, but the one I remember most was as Mickey Mantle in Billy Crystal’s docu-drama ’61*’. He wasn’t amazing, but for some reason he stuck in my mind; he has unmistakable presence. But at no other point has he ever fully convinced me or made his characters entirely real.
The same applies in ‘The Mist’: when he’s given more action-y fare, he pulls through nicely – he can do the physical stuff very well, and even has this fantastic growl in his voice that demands respect and expresses anger really well. But when he has to emote in a softer range, be it tenderness or sadness, he is relatively limited. For instance, there’s a scene that requires him to be enraged with grief… and not a tear was shed.
Oh, he went through the motions perfectly, but not a drop poured down his face, despite the agony he’s supposed to be feeling.
And that’s kind of the problem for me. As much as he is relatively credible the rest of the time, these moments really trip him up, and this pretty much makes me question the humanity of the character he’s portraying. After all, if the person doesn’t look real, then he/she isn’t real. If this person cannot show appropriate signs of anguish, then how am I to relate to what they’re supposed to be feeling?
The rest of the cast is mostly solid, though, starting with Nathan Gamble as Billy, David’s son. He’s absolutely phenomenal at expressing the wide range of emotions that his character goes through – from astonishment to terror to shock, he’s got it all down as few actors his age could. In fact, that performance is one of the best that I’ve seen since Haley Joel Osment first came onto the scene.
Marcia Gay Harden turns in an unforgettable performance as Mrs. Carmody, the antagonist of the piece, a religious zealot who is openly mocked by the townspeople until their fear has them grasping at any sign of hope – the kind of hope that only faith has on offer. While I found her slightly too dialled up for my taste, she did a great job of bringing in the hysterics and making us loathe her (in fact, we actually cheered and applauded when she met her fate!!!)
If anything, though, ‘The Mist’ is anchored by fantastic supporting characters. My three favourites were:
- Ollie (played by Toby Jones) who was sober, intelligent and courageous. He was the backbone of the store, constantly watching David’s back and tending to a lot of the details while David was dealing with the bigger pieces. Without Ollie, there’s no way that they would have made it as far as they did.
- Dan Miller (played by the superb Jeffrey DeMunn) was rational and convincing. While he starts wild-eyed, which is understandable given just how terrified he was, he quickly steels himself and plows forward – even though he knows what lies in wait. I love watching someone overcome their fears like that.
- Irene Reppler (played by the inimitable Frances Sternhagen) who was aged, but gutsy. Even though she might be worried about her ability to face these incredible odds, she transcends her frailty and takes no crap from anyone. It’s an admirable character and Sternhagen is probably the best choice for the part; she delivers like few could.
To me, these three are entirely credible and grounding. Unfortunately, I find that a lot of the others performances were slightly short of realism. This leads me to wonder if the acting was slightly unrealistic on purpose because ‘The Mist’ is supposed to be an homage to horror films of yore (much like King wrote the story with those old tales in mind). Was this approach a conscious decision?
Similarly, the film is bursting with dialogue that doesn’t come off as authentic. Most of it does, but Darabont had some sociopolitical messages to make and that he wrote in a heavy-handed way, making them feel staged, unnatural. Of course, if one were to think of old-school films, this would be entirely in keeping with the genre – so I wonder if Darabont chose to write the dialogues this way as part of his tribute. Or am I just being an apologist?
After all, Darabont believed in the old-style horror film genre enough that he wanted to film it in black and white – not colour. He was vetoed by the studio, of course, but his intention was for a black and white presentation. So, on the special edition DVDs and blu-rays, he included a second disc with the b&w version on it – which is what we watched. Even though it was shot in colour and then made monochromatic, it still looks fantastic.
Although its traditions are decades old, ‘The Mist’ is also concerned with, and reflects, more modern concerns.
‘The Mist’ was made a few years after September 11, 2001, after North American lives were seemingly changed forever. It tries to address the paranoia of the time, of being attacked by a force unknown, that is seemingly everywhere, that traps people together in one place, leaving them in survival mode. It brings up the matter of what happens when fear and uncertainty mix, when people are so terrified that they’ll do anything to feel hope, to feel safe.
Ollie: “As a species we’re fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?”
It’s easy to see the parallels being made by Darabont, whether consciously or not, with what took place in the shadow of the World Trade Center attacks. It shows a struggle between the few leaders, some who refuse to believe that what’s happening presents any danger, those who do but are more cautious and pragmatic, and those who do but believe that it’s God’s work. And it portrays the dramatic influence that these few can have on the average people, the followers.
Amanda Dunfrey: “People are basically good; decent. My god, David, we’re a civilized society.”
David Drayton: “Sure, as long as the machines are working and you can dial 911. But you take those things away, you throw people in the dark, you scare the shit out of them – no more rules.”
It’s a noble attempt by Darabont, given that the political discourse of the era was still extremely charged then; I can’t even fathom the reaction to his film had he made it three years earlier. He even goes so far as to make obvious criticisms of the government, something that wasn’t welcome in many circles at the time. He comes close to being convincing with it; he speaks truths, but it comes off as perhaps slightly too theatrical for it to come off properly.
Irene: “We had damage at the school, wouldn’t you know. That’s what we get for not fixing that roof when we should’ve. But with funds being cut every year… You’d think educating children would be more of a priority in this country. But you’d be wrong. Government’s got better things to spend our money on, like corporate handouts, and building bombs.”
As I mentioned earlier, he may have written these pieces in a way to emulate the dialogues of the films he was inspired by, which were also kind of clunky. Or it may have been written in such a way that it stood out, so that his message would be discerned by all audiences (some people need to be hit over the head to pay attention to something). Either way, for good or bad, I believe that Darabont did this intentionally: his previous films prove how sharp his dialogue can be; this is not typical of him at all.
But, for all the sociopolitical stuff, ‘The Mist’ is also a monster movie. A critter movie movie, really. Critters that creeped me out, in fact. I don’t even have an aversion to bugs, and am extremely tolerant of spiders, but these creatures had me all goosebumped – a rare thing in any horror film. Was it because I was so immersed in the film that I “believed” these beasts to be real? Or were their (sadly) CGI designs such that it actually got under my skin?
The worst thing is, I didn’t find all of them particularly well-designed; some of the critters stunk of unoriginality, being merely offshoots of creatures we know already but with minor modifications. However, there were some that impressed me with their unusualness, in particular the larger ones that we saw towards the end. I think that what creeped me out the most with the smaller ones was the impact that they had – and the insecurity that being separated by nothing more than massive storefront windows provided.
Either way, I felt uneasy, on edge, almost throughout the movie. I can’t say that I was frightened, per se, but between the monsters outside and the monsters inside, I was certainly tense. And that rarely happens. None other than Stephen King himself has gone on record saying that this version of his story had actually frightened him – and that’s saying something considering that he should be immune by now. Kudos to Darabont for pulling that off; King doesn’t always praise adaptations of his work.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Then there’s the small matter of the ending – one that Darabont wholly invented, but which is based on a passing reference in King’s novella.
Darabont had been developing the idea for many years (some accounts say twenty!) but was asked by producers to change it because it’s so devastating. He believed in it enough that he decided to keep the ending and make the movie with different producers for half the money instead – also waving his directorial fee in the process.
His ending is on par with the one in ‘Spoorloos‘ as one of the most unforgettable closers ever: one’s jaw can’t help but drop at what he’s come up with, and I’ve had many conversations about it. No one is left unmoved by these last few minutes, no matter what one’s position is; it’s that potent.
Of course, for me, it helps that Darabont used Dead Can Dance’s “The Host of Seraphim” as background for that whole moment. Lisa Gerrard’s voice expresses such grief, and yet the music is also gorgeous – it makes for a surreal, almost dreamy moment, of wondrous despair. It’s hard to describe – it has to be heard to understand it. And in lossless audio, it was chill-inducing.
Stephen King has told Darabont that he wished that he had come up with this ending. You can’t get a better stamp of approval than that.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
In my estimation, Frank Darabont is possibly the best of the Stephen King directors – although, with the phenomenal ‘Stand by Me‘ and ‘Misery’, Rob Reiner is a close second. But Darabont’s ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ was an astonishingly gripping picture and ‘The Green Mile’ did a masterful job of translating the book to screen. With ‘The Mist’, Darabont has basically sealed the deal: he can do drama, he can do supernatural, but he can also do intense horror.
Darabont and King are a brilliant mix. You’d sit down watching ‘The Mist’ thinking that you were about to watch a horror movie, and you’d be partly right: it is based on a creepy Stephen King novella, and it’s filled to the brim with monsters of all sorts. But the real monsters in this picture are actually the one in our hearts, the ones that rear their ugly heads when someone turns off the lights, when we find ourselves in the dark, feeling scared and uncertain about what lies ahead.
Frank Darabont’s version of ‘The Mist’ is more than a mere scary movie: it’s a reflection of the times that it was made in, a time of terrible instability and massive internal conflicts in the United States and around the world. To me, this elevates it well beyond one’s average horror film, in the realm of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘ and ‘Night of the Living Dead‘.
In fact, I would have rated it more highly if not for the heavy-handedness of the messages and some of the performances. After all, this was my third or fourth time seeing it, so I know the story by heart – and yet it still gets under my skin and keeps the tension alive all the way through. What more could one want from a scary movie, in the end?
“The end of times has come. Not in flames, but in mist.”
Post scriptum: It is said that Darabont has the rights to ‘The Long Walk’ (originally penned by King under his alter-ego Richard Bachman) and ‘The Monkey’. While I can’t say that the latter appeals to me, I would love to see ‘The Long Walk’ brought to the screen; anyone who enjoys pictures of the like of ‘Battle Royale’, ‘The Hunger Games’, or ‘The Running Man’ (King’s original short more so than the picture, actually) would likely get a thrill out of this one. It’s slow, however, and entirely character-based, but in Darabont’s hands no doubt it would be mesmerizing. I’m crossing my fingers on this one.
Date of viewing: October 23, 2013