Saturday, December 01, 2007

Movie: The Mist (2007)

All these Oscar bait films out, and when I finally get an afternoon free what do I sneak off to see? A monster movie. To be fair, though, I’ve waited years for this one.

I must have read Stephen King’s novella The Mist a dozen times when I was in high school. King may have written better, but The Mist remains the finest showcase for his talent of mixing the quotidian and the otherworldly. It’s the apocalypse in a supermarket. After a massive electrical storm knocks out the power in a Maine resort town, everyone heads to the store to stock up. A mysterious fog rolls in, and in it be monsters. Of course, there are also some inside the Food House in human form. The question is which ones pose the greater danger.

What did I love most about The Mist? Simple: it includes every variety of creature imaginable. Giant, flying, poisonous insects? Check. Larger pterodactyl-style things that eat aforesaid insects, as well as anything else that moves? Check. Spiders that shoot acid webs and lay eggs in human hosts? You better believe that’s a check. Not to mention mastodon-sized scorpion beasts and enormous tentacled hellspawn that seem to have escaped from the work of another New England horror writer of note.

Whenever I’d finish reading The Mist I’d think, “When are they gonna make a movie out of this? It’s only gonna be like the best one ever!” Eventually I realized there was a good reason for the delay. (More on that later.) At last Frank Darabont, who has had some success adapting King, stepped up to the plate.

From the moment Jeffrey DeMunn, a Darabont regular, races into the supermarket, his face and shirt bloodied, and screams, “Something ... in the mist!,” I knew I was in good hands. Many of my favorite moments from the novella are transferred intact, including the bone-chilling “Won’t anyone here see a lady home?” scene. (Darabont adds a late fiendish coda of his own devising.)

The movie adroitly captures that sinking, post-disaster sense of immediate helplessness, and the worse moments that follow when people who baselessly claim to know the truth begin amassing followers and making decisions. (You want to read some contemporary political parallels into that, be my guest.) Marcia Gay Harden, who, bless her heart, does not recognize that there is a top for her to go over, is ferocious as Mother Carmody, who builds a congregation of the fearful. King’s reliance on that old-time religion often hurts his work for me – it pretty much spoiled the fun of last year’s TV movie Desperation – but in The Mist it’s largely invoked to make points about the dangers of fanaticism. It was great to see Toby Jones, the Truman Capote lookalike who played the author in Infamous, as the mild-mannered assistant grocery manager who proves to be the level-headed figure you want on your side in a crisis.

Darabont keeps a few too many of King’s folksy/juvenile sayings, but that’s easily forgiven once the monsters show up. They’re all here, being fought off with broomsticks and bags of dog food. It’s like the ultimate ‘50s horror movie.

There’s a problem with The Mist that may have thwarted earlier attempts at adaptation: the novella doesn’t really have an ending. It basically stops on an ambiguous but tentatively hopeful note. (Not that the adolescent me saw it that way. Every time I read it, I thought: these people are screwed.) Darabont goes past that point to provide a more concrete resolution, and the diverse critical reaction to it compelled me to the theater.

I’m not going to spoil what he came up with. One interpretation of Darabont’s conclusion is that it buttresses Mother Carmody’s argument. Another is that it makes King’s fundamental point in the starkest possible terms. My initial reaction, in all honesty, was shock. I couldn’t believe Darabont had gone with an ending so bleak. I don’t know that it completely works – it’s tonally at odds with what came before, and goes on a bit too long – but the boldness of his choice, the sheer ballsiness of it, earned my respect.

Not that the critics are giving him credit for daring. A lot of them take Darabont to task for going all high-falutin’ in what they took to be a one-note scarefest. Then again, plenty of their number claimed Darabont was a newcomer to horror, not recognizing that The Mist marks a return to his roots. He wrote the best of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies as well as the underrated 1988 remake of The Blob. Like Stephen King, he respects the genre and knows what it’s capable of. The Mist is proof.

P.S. Just back from an impromptu trip to the supermarket, as Seattle is getting its first snowfall of the year. Already the panic is setting in. A couple of pterodactyls is just what the place needed.