Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Mist (2007)

After a very unexpected storm has hit the house of the Drayton family, film poster artist David (Thomas Jane), is just popping into the obligatory American small town nearby with his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) to gather some supplies.

While father and son are in the local supermarket, a dense mist rolls down from the mountain where Black Mesa an army base housing something called "Project Arrowhead" is situated. With the mist, some decidedly unearthly and exceedingly hungry creatures appear.

The usual cross-section of American movie small town life tries to weather out the troubles by barricading themselves in the supermarket. As if being protected from an alien ecology only by a thin glass wall and some stacked sacks of fertilizer wouldn't be bad enough, the fact that (and you just might have heard that song before) man is the greatest monster of them all does not make anyone's life easier.

As we all know, every Stephen King movie needs an evil religious nutcase to make a bad situation even worse. This time, she comes in the form of a certain Mrs Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) who has read all the chapters of the bible concerning tentacle monsters and man-eating bugs and would really, really like to hear an "Expiation!" from you. Because the situation is dire, and people start to die in unpleasant ways, Mrs. Carmody even acquires her own little congregation of co-nutbags. Less insane people like Drayton or the new school teacher Amanda Dunfrey (Laurie Holden) are fastly starting to prefer the monsters outside to those locked in with them. At least those outside don't rant.

Ah, the Stephen King adaptation, bane of every right-thinking person's life. It's not that all of them are unwatchable, but too many of them are just sort of bloated and a little boring, yet still successful enough to make it unnecessary for the denizens of Hollywood (or King himself) to try for quality when taking the author's work to the screen.

For some reason, the memo that King adaptations don't need to be any good hasn't reached Frank Darabont,and he has gone and left us with a more than adequate adaptation of one of King's best novellas.

The Mist suffers from its share of clichés. You'll witness exactly the characters you know from everywhere in King's work and in the works of King copists acting in exactly the way you'd expect them to act. The religious nutcase of the week is religious, nutcasy and contagious in a manner I can never find all too believable (but that religion stuff is hardly working for me at the best of times), parents are doing everything for their children etc, etc. But Darabont presents these clichés with so much verve, possibly even conviction, that it's difficult to care much about the lack of originality. I'd ascribe a large part of this effect to the excellent  work of the film's ensemble of mostly experienced character actors who go about their business with the expected professionality.

This will probably not sound like much of a compliment, but we are talking about the story of people hiding in a supermarket so that they won't be eaten by extra-dimensional monsters, and proffessionalism is exactly what a film like this needs to help its audience to the needed suspension of disbelief.

While Darabont does his damndest to make a movie full of the deep cynicism and pessimism regarding "human nature" I love about 70s genre cinema, he's obviously not ashamed about what The Mist also is - an apocalyptic monster movie, where people are dispatched by cool and creepy creatures in rather nasty ways. In fact, Darabont (and/or the wonderful people responsible for the monsters) go all out in making the monsters and the (surprisingly gruesome for what is basically a mainstream horror film) ways they dispatch their victims in at once cool and logically consistent, transforming what might well have been a silly or half-assed monster movie into an earnestly good one.

The best thing about the monsters, though, is that they are looking just fabulous. They are mostly realized through CGI with a few bits of practical effects thrown in, but made with exactly the right style and feel to be at once threatening, strange and familiar.

The film also has (not keeping with a King feel here) one of the more cynical endings I have witnessed in a Hollywood film of the last decades, going directly for the throat of two (or, depending on the way you count, three) big cinematic taboos. I'm not completely sure how I feel about it. On one hand, I'm always glad when a film has the guts to go the consequent and depressing route, but on the other I didn't find the way the ending played out completely fitting for the film that came before it. A more open ending would have been less provocative, but probably just as true to the spirit of the 70s style end of the world The Mist trades in.


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