Whether you watch scary movies for simple cathartic entertainment, or to unravel the deepest and darkest layers of our collective societal consciousness (or perhaps – like me – it’s a combination of both), one thing that is undoubtedly not a reason to watch a good ol’ fashioned horror flick is this: To arrive at a neat, sugary sweet happy ending. Frank Darabont’s faithful filmic adaptation of The Mist, one of Stephen King’s first novellas, very much takes this idea and runs with it. Like, to the depressingly dark, blood-spattered hills, and beyond.
It’s bleak, oppressively so, but the impressive thing is that there just hasn’t been an ending to a movie that has impactfully hit home with me quite like The Mist. It is, crazily enough, over a decade old; the fact that nothing has quite topped its teeth-clenching gut-punch of an ending since is one hell of a feat. But am I getting too ahead of myself? Well, quite possibly, so let’s rewind for a moment and begin by touching on the plot of Darabont’s sci-fi horror pic.
The narrative focuses on the small, rural town of Bridgton, Maine, where affable father David Drayton (Thomas Jane), eight-year-old son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and disgruntled neighbour Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) are tasked with venturing out to their local grocery store to pick up supplies following a nasty storm. Downed telephone lines, bustling aisles, mysterious military personnel, and a handful of oddball characters await them, including the neighbourhood religious nut, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Holden).
Things take a severe turn for the worse when the titular weather pattern rolls in, an eerie air-raid siren rips through the town (reminiscent of Silent Hill), and within mere moments a distraught local man (Jeffrey DeMunn), replete with a bloodied nose and wide-eyed panic, materialises out of the vapour wailing: “Something in the mist took John Lee and I heard him screaming!” This simple, yet effective line sets the timbre and the tone of what is, at its core, a vicious creature feature, that also smuggles in some surprisingly thought-provoking social commentary on faith and fear, and how these two divergent motifs intersect when a group of ordinary people face an inordinate crisis.
The Mist doesn’t simply paint a portrait of man vs. monster (though don’t get me wrong, it does that effectively, too). Instead, what’s truly provocative about the story is how it subverts your expectations by highlighting how — through excessive fear — mankind can become just as much a monster as, well, the bloodthirsty, tentacle beasts that want to devour them. In many ways, the mist is simply a physical representation of fear and the unknown. Cliques form, an ‘us vs. them’ mentality begins to proliferate, and religious extremist, Mrs. Carmody, is suddenly able to propagate her antiquated fundamentalist ideologies upon the vulnerable, the afraid and the hopeless. When tremendous pressure is applied, when that fear reaches fever pitch and hope has all but petered out, The Mist holds up a gloomy mirror to society that exposes a deep-seated problem with the human condition: When the shit truly hits the fan, ordinary people become the real monsters.
Despite the thoughtfulness of the overarching mob mentality message, truth be told, the film’s delivery can occasionally feel a touch too on-the-nose (religious zealot, Mrs. Carmody, borders on caricature and is just a little bit too overtly evil to authentically buy into), though your personal mileage may indeed vary. Furthermore, this “mankind is the true monster” notion has arguably been explored more effectively in classic movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, and Planet of the Apes. Still, The Mist is a fresh, modern take on the concept, and for its occasionally minor heavy-handed foibles, it is intelligently written, with believable characters, decent dialogue, smart cinematography, and some excellent performances, too (Thomas Jane, along with the majority of the ensemble cast, really stands out). Ultimately, what it lacks in narrative subtlety, it makes up for in exploring some refreshing, and intrinsically human ideas that jostle for your attention in-between the heart-pounding moments of otherworldly dread.
So, what were the main reasons that perturbed hardline horror devotees when it first released? Well, there are a few problems that can potentially sour your experience of The Mist. Firstly, the film’s reliance on CGI special effects is noticeably eye-watering. Now, these postproduction techniques really aren’t that bad, but they aren’t particularly strong, either. The overall visual effects lean too heavily into mid-tier level CGI, which becomes more apparent as the camera begins to shift focus and reveal the pic’s menagerie of pulsating tentacle monstrosities. Honestly, at its worst, it’s merely passable, but for some, the over-reliance on low-cost CGI and a serious lack of practical effects polish can be jarring.
The final issue may well be that aforementioned uber-gloomy ending. In some ways I really respect that such a bold, devastating and harsh vision even got green-lit for the Hollywood silver screen — it truly is heart-breaking, shocking stuff. Nevertheless, for a popcorn audience, it may just be a little too much. Further to this point is the fact that the main protagonist David Drayton — a character who is both, for the most part, moral and virtuous throughout the movie — is the one who has to go through one of the most painful and tragic arcs within the story. It’s almost as if — whisper it — religious fanatic Mrs. Carmody was right all along. That being said, there is hope to be found for other characters within the story, but unfortunately none of it finds its way to Mr. Drayton and his lugubrious cohorts. Long story short, the conclusion is one helluva punch to the ol’ ticker, and for some it may’ve proved to be too much of a downer, leaving them with an awfully sour taste as they walked out from the cinema. However, if you do buy into it, it’s a daring, heart-rending and audacious conclusion to a brilliant Twilight Zone-esque horror picture.
As you’re probably already aware, it’s not the first time that Darabont has collaborated with the prolific horror author. Working previously as writer-director on The Shawshank Redemption and director-producer on The Green Mile, it’s safe to say that Darabont “gets” King’s source material and has a certain knack for translating his work to the big screen effectively. Interestingly, King apparently really liked the ending of Darabont’s silver screen conversion of The Mist and has even gone on record as saying that he actually preferred it over his own novella’s closing lines, which concludes in a far less tragic way than its cinematic interpretation. The fact that the original creative mind behind the source material enjoyed the film’s deviation from the novella’s finale is some interesting food for thought. Before I begin wrapping things up, I just want to touch on the recent TV show adaptation of The Mist. If you’re interested in checking it out, well, my advice would be honestly not to ever bother. Instead, I’d suggest giving it a very wide berth indeed. That thing truly is beyond awful, and fails to understand what makes King’s source material work so well.
Ultimately, Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of The Mist is a very uncompromising vision of ordinary people falling apart at the seams as a result of unparalleled fear. On the surface, it could be interpreted as a “turn your brain off” kind of monster flick, but that’d be a huge mistake. Between its flailing, leathery appendages hides some really interesting social commentary on everyday human beings and how they behave during extreme crisis. Though it’s told rather unsubtly, it’s still a fine example of horror at its most subversive, at its most raw and at its most shocking. The truly terrifying thing, however, is that, deep down, we all know that people can indeed be the worst, and The Mist is a loud and uncomfortable reminder of that simple fact.