By Elford Alley. This is RETROGRADING, where we all follow the beam.
THE FILM: The Mist
THE TIME: In 2007, a year of two successful Stephen King adaptations, 1408 and the Frank Darabont-helmed The Mist.
RECOLLECTIONS: The Mist was originally a novella about a small town in Maine under siege by Lovecraftian horrors and religious zealots after a failed military experiment opened a portal to another world. The story ended on a hopeful note, as its protagonists fled the mist-shrouded town and headed towards what they thought to be a safer haven.
The film, for the most part, keeps the central premise of that story intact. The titular mist still arrives following a thunderstorm. The fog still enshrouds the city, masking a bestiary of horrors. The protagonists still spend most of their time trapped in a grocery store at the mercy of a religious zealot, who is convinced the end times have arrived and is looking for a grisly, Old Testament solution to appease an vengeful god.
The film’s ending, however, deviates from its source considerably. There is no safe haven. All hope is lost. Surrounded by the mist and the beasts contained within, the film’s core protagonists decide to commit mass suicide, which leaves the lead, played by Thomas Jane, alone. So he steps out into the mist to meet his grisly end just as the military seemingly whisks the fog and monsters away, in one of filmdom’s craziest examples of deus ex machina. American films rarely feature downer endings. The Mist aimed for the worst-case scenario, and crashed through it with aplomb.
Frank Darabont always understood where the true appeal of King’s work lay — with his characters. King famously crafts characters we know and understand. We worry about and root for these characters, so when something cuts them down, there comes a feeling of loss, a feeling that Darabont tapped into with ease. That shouldn’t suggest, however, that the film’s dedication to character skimped on the horror.
The film showcases a variety of CGI beasties, including the show-stopping behemoth that crosses an entire highway with a single step. Moments like this — when the mist is used to obscure our vision, offering mere glimpses of the creatures within — keep us from ridiculing the more painfully-rendered CGI creatures when they arrive later on, such as the grocery store Pterosaur. The monsters of this film, human and otherwise, work best when they are shrouded, either in their intentions or visually.
THE DIRECTOR: Frank Darabont has had considerable success adapting Stephen King’s work, writing and directing two acclaimed films adaptations, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. In both cases, he knew when to deviate from the source material.
For example, in The Green Mile he combined characters from the book series into a singular entity to streamline the movie’s events (even if that only marginally improved some of the story’s problematic racial aspects). With The Mist, he approached King about completely changing the ending. In doing so, he saved the film from becoming a mediocre meditation on what true monsters can be, and gave audiences something substantially more disturbing to ponder over. He also looked to the horror films that inspired him, including the late George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and pushed to have the film in black-and-white. The studio fought this move, but in 2008 audiences were finally able to see the black-and-white cut on Blu-ray, enjoying the moodier and more atmospheric version the director intended.
THE CAST: Many of the film’s cast would go on to join Frank Darabont in his first season of The Walking Dead, including Melissa McBride as a woman desperate to save her kids, and Laurie Holden and Darabont-mainstay Jeffrey DeMunn, who both end up dying at the hands of David Drayton (Thomas Jane) in the film’s shocking final moments. Nathan Gamble does a commendable job as David’s young son, Billy. However, the true star of the film is Marcia Gay Harden as the fire-and-brimstone Mrs. Carmody, a woman who successfully creates a murderous cult in a grocery store mere minutes after the mist arrives. No small feat, that.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Nostalgia-Fest. Even ten years later, the film holds up as one of the few successful adaptations of Stephen King’s work. Don’t forget to check out the black-and-white version.
RETROGRADE: 6 out of 10