The Mist Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    The Mist Review
    “Don't go out there! There's something in the mist!”

    Rudely shunted-about with regards to a UK theatrical distribution, Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's novella The Mist drifts onto US Blu-ray in a stunning release that brilliantly presents the movie in either its full-colour glory or - and this is a real boon, folks - a scintillatingly vivid yet wondrously evocative black and white version especially filmed for home video viewing.
    “It appears we may have a problem of some magnitude.”

    Whilst the novella was a neat Lovecraftian tale of disparate strangers thrust together when a supernatural mist descends and isolates them in the midst of weird and terrifying creatures from somewhere beyond, Darabont's take seems to up the psychological divide, pitch in some post 9/11 paranoia and, most emphatically of all, take us by the hand and deliver us unto one of the most shocking climaxes imaginable. Essentially, though, he maintains the character interplay and the rising conflict between the two groups of survivors that form inside the cut-off shopping mall stronghold, and opts to keep the monstrous episodes far less sensational than many other directors would have done. Wisely, this approach becomes the film's rock-solid backbone. We don't really need to know why the mist has descended upon this little rural enclave, where it has come from or just why the hideous things that dwell within it seem so hell-bent on munching middle-class suburban intruders, bikers, soldiers, shop clerks and shelf-stackers, wrath 'n' thunder Bible-thumpers or creative recluses with severe arboreal problems back on the ranch. It is this very abstract scenario that King made so much of - giving him the usual latitude for societal comment and behavioural conjuration. As writer, producer and director of the movie, Frank Darabont is clearly enamoured by the very same thing, even if the incredibly rapid cast introductions - back-stories, character traits and attitudes are piled on thick and fast during a first act that doesn't pause for breath in its frantic desire to set all the pieces on the board in plain view - does smack of utter contrivance in almost a pastiche of all those old 70's disaster movies starring Shelley Winters.

    But then, you could argue that this is exactly the point. Darabont's movie is a throwback. He draws not only upon the creature features of the fifties, but on the personality-clash subplots that padded-out the Poseidons, the Airports, the Earthquake and that Towering Inferno shenanigans. It is cloying and obvious but, as it turns out, also highly effective.

    Once Thomas Jane's David Drayton, his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and his feuding neighbour Brent, played by Andre Braugher drive into town to pick up supplies after a wildly bizarre storm damages their lakeside properties, the scene is set for a ghastly siege that places them, alongside a few dozen more ramshackle Maine denizens and oddballs who have all migrated, Dawn Of The Dead-style, to the local supermarket, at the mercy of a strange mist that seems to have followed them. A frightened and bloodied man runs into the store with tales of carnage in the fog and no sooner have people scoffed and pondered their shopping bills than a serious tremor rocks the building. With no phone signals and the first person to attempt to leave the place disappearing into the mist with a gut-wrenching scream, our ragtag gaggle of misfits must find a way to either survive the fearsome monstrosities lurking about outside or, at the very least, learn to get along with each other. But with acid-tongued religious nutters like Mrs. Carmody (an electrifying Marcia Gay Harden) and pure grouches who don't want to play “monsters in the mist” today because they think it is all just a big joke, I wouldn't hold your breath in anticipation of good-natured bonhomie amid the shopping trolleys.

    “The arrowhead project? Well, you're a local - any idea what they do up there?”

    “Missile defence research, you know, I'm sure you've heard the stories.”

    “I'm sure the woman at the Laundromat says that they have a crashed flying saucer up there with frozen alien bodies.”

    As is so often the case with such material - see also Spielberg's War Of The Worlds - the demoralising and sobering depiction of how humans become the real monsters all too easily when society breaks down is dealt out frankly and with an unflinching eye. Although I feel that the descent into chaos and mania is actually much too swift, the events depicted are convincingly harrowing and quite unforgettable. With religious fervour and extremism finding an easy avenue into the desperate psyches of the frightened, primal bigotry and sacrificial zeal are quick to overwhelm the mismatched and weak-willed survivors. The essential, yet thoroughly aggravating Mrs. Carmody is the lynchpin of this microcosmic jihad. Her endless spiel of righteous-yet-deluded condemnation, both furious and despicable - the irony being that her own prejudices make her the devil, The Mist's Randall Flagg, if you will - actually more cutting, ruthless and ultimately more terrifying than anything rising up out of the encircling fog. That Marcia Gay Harden, who has already proved her estimable skills for playing prime-time bitches in things like the Coen Bros' exquisite Miller's Crossing, can make you thoroughly despise her yet still have you completely understand how the lemming-like stragglers could fall for her Old Testament rhetoric is simply mesmerising. Blood-boiling, all right, but mesmerising, nonetheless.

    “As a species we're fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up ways to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?”

    Thomas Jane, so good as South African cop-turned-bank robber in Stander and certainly the only person who pushed beyond the rigid one-dimensional framework that Renny Harlin enforced upon his cast in the fun Deep Blue Sea, is superb as the artistic big-shot caught up in this dilemma. Surprisingly beefy for a creative family man, Jane's David Drayton is a film-fan's dream-hero - a designer of movie posters. Adorning the walls of his loft-studio are homage and riffs to The Thing, Pan's Labyrinth and even Stephen King's own Gunslinger series by way of Clint Eastwood, yet this filmic lore isn't going to help him to understand the threat that is slithering, crawling and flapping his way. Some early scenes of him arguing with people about the very real fact that something nasty is mooching about outside do border on the plain daft, but this is Darabont's writing rather Jane's rising to the innate silliness of it all. When things turn decidedly grim, he is as powerful as ever. The restraint that he shows right up until the point when his son's life is in danger is admirably realistic. David is scared and confused. He wants out but he doesn't know how to go about such an escape and, because he isn't the big macho hero-type at all, his need for camaraderie and help is never far from his mind. Of course, he has a son to look after and a wife to get back to and deep down inside there is the notion that, at some point, he may have to co-exist with these people again once the whole thing is over. Thus, unlike Kurt Russell's MacReady in The Thing, who is undeniably a man of action, Jane plays David as a thoroughly likeable, credible and hugely vulnerable average Joe - violent when there's no other alternative, but desperate to keep the peace, otherwise.

    But you've also got terrific support from sunken-cheeked William Sadler as hick mechanic Jim, who should know a thing or two about being trapped in an isolated building by something freakishly deadly after battling Billy Zane's hell-spawned ghoul in Demon Knight. Sadler, once so strong and formidable as lead villain in Die Hard 2, now seems quite convincingly pathetic as Jim goes into relative meltdown here, his mind imploding after a particularly nasty spider-beast encounter and his soul becoming easy prey for Mrs. Carmody's cultish fingers. He does extremely well managing a third act mood and motivation swing too, whilst still keeping Jim totally in-character. And look out for his buddy, who looks just like David Guest. Now that's frightening, isn't it?

    “I'm not sure I believe it, and I was here. What we saw was impossible. You know that, don't you? What do we say? How do we... convince them? Ollie, what the hell were those tentacles even attached to?”

    Laurie Holden's stern-faced but pretty Amanda is a clever device. You sort of think that she is going to be a surrogate love interest for David, whose wife is back at the house - most scenarios of this ilk, no matter how desperate, seem to find time for a smooch or two - but Darabont is not going to adhere to this particularly distracting cliché. Amanda is full-blown character in her own right who just happened to get up in this thing at the same time. Her decision to side with David and to help look after his son is not forged by the conventional romantic angle that could be exploited, but rather by the obvious survival instinct that would inform most reasonably sane people that he is about the only guy in there who has anything even remotely resembling a plan. Francis Sternhagen, so good as the frosty Doctor Lazerus in Peter Hyam's High Noon in space, Outland, makes a welcome return here and proves to be just as crotchety as ever. And it is refreshingly nice that the one glimmer of love-in-the-face-of-danger - between checkout girl Alexa Davalos and weird-faced soldier Sam Witwer - pans out in a really unexpected fashion with a serious case of the pimples ruining the moment.

    Darabont, as director, doesn't go overboard on the horrific set-piece bedlam that periodically intrudes upon the tension-rife supermarket defenders. There may well be some grisly encounters to spice up the narrative - the spider-beast ambush and the chaotic flame 'n' fang fiasco when the windows go through are terrific - but the best elements involving the trans-dimensional creatures are usually the most fleeting. Things barely glimpsed in the mist, looming figures drifting through the ether accompanied by unearthly wailing and great thudding stomps of misshapen paws are brilliantly conceived apparitions that suggest a nightmarish beauty concocted from some warped-out evolutionary path. Other filmmakers may have revelled in showing us these “big fellers” in fabulous detail, but Darabont is canny enough to simply hint at their grotesquery. Such incidental visuals as the massive, tentacled elephant - think LOTR's Mummakil crossed with the biggest set of bagpipes in the world - that sways across the road to nowhere is a touch of perverse, almost surreal splendour. The casual nature of these things blundering about in the fog really adds a sense of endlessness to the disaster, and the landscape, masked of the intimacies of much of the slaughter that has taken place, becomes a virtual limbo caught in the dreamland between Heaven and Hell. Darabont makes such a wasteland look sumptuous and the scale of the destruction snowball exponentially in our own sight-starved imagination. On the downside, though, some of the close-up effects, courtesy of KNB's Howard Berger and Greg (now Gregory) Nicotero look a little too cartoonic to deliver anything other playful shudders. Nicely designed, and with a view to some crazed sort of practicality, they, nevertheless, lack the substance that our minds can supply so much more readily. But then, of course, the point of this horrible situation is that we, as humans, always make it worse for ourselves.

    “We have Judas in our midst!”

    For those of you who have been following the press stories and internet rumours regarding the Large Hadron Collider experiment taking place beneath Europe right as I type this - scientists are attempting to recreate conditions just after the Big Bang in the hopes of discovering the essence of creation, the substance and nature of dark matter and all manner of wacky other things that sound like they have genuinely come out of a fifties sci-fi movie - the notion of the US military unlocking a door to another dimension does not seem quite so far-fetched after all. If the naysayers about this real-life project prove to be correct about the threat to us all once the boffins fire up the mighty LHC, you could even use The Mist as a survival/training video!

    The movie is largely old-school B-movie cheese, but with the added bite of dark paranoia, psychological torment on a grand scale and mob violence. What it says about the human condition is not pleasant, but even if its depiction of man's descent into barbarity and bigoted factions of seething resentment is distressingly accelerated due to the constraints of the narrative, it is horribly accurate about how a disparate group of untrained people can fall apart under pressure. Unlikely heroes emerge - step forward Toby Jones as pudgy little crackshot Ollie Weeks - and the strongest can often be revealed to have backbones of jelly. Of particular note is how unapologetic the script is with regards to the powerlessness of those still clinging to their morals. The finger-pointing accusation of the early moment when an anxious young mother is compelled to return to her children through the mist all alone, and its curiously cool but poetic payoff produce uncomfortable feelings in all of us - demanding that we question what exactly we would do in a similar situation. War and disaster degenerate us all, we know that. Desperate times call for desperate measures and, in reality, few feel proud of their actions when the proverbial hits the fan. It's all about what happens in the aftermath ... what if after the all the chaos has subsided we have to pick up the pieces again and face those we have fought? Darabont's script doesn't answer this, of course, but, rather deviously, lets such nagging questions loiter at the back of our minds. Even Mark Isham's ominously dark and unforgiving score seems to stir up unwelcome emotions and a certain impression of guilt at our own impotence during the most harrowing and volatile flare-ups.

    Not bad going for what many would assume would be just a pulp B-movie about flesh-eating monsters.

    The Mist is thunderously good entertainment. It mixes 50's monsters and absurdist, half-submerged military/scientific blundering with acute modernist reactionary observations about the repercussions of disaster, whether natural or man-made, and the breakdown of communication and common sense. It is also extremely witty and provides a few fine instances of gross-out mutilation and at least one killing that should trigger wild applause from everyone. The combination of having both colour and b/w versions of the film also allows for two very different viewing experiences - which I will come onto in more detail in the picture section of the review. But basically, the throwback style of the movie is lent a keener, vibrant and far more intense atmosphere that recalls Romero's Night Of The Living Dead much more than, say, Them! or Tarantula. Its b/w vogue is edgier and bleaker rather than cosily vintage. But, either way, The Mist is ripe horror fare that makes no excuses and delivers one hell of a punch-line that won't soon be forgotten.

    The Rundown

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