French-Hungarian-American filmmaker Frank Darabont, known for directing two of Stephen King’s dramatic works The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, first broke into the film scene through his screenwriting work in the horror genre. Most notably, he is the screenwriter for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob and The Fly II. Although his first feature was a 1990 television horror film called Buried Alive, Darabont’s involvement in directing horror films seemed to begin and end there after his second directorial effort, 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, put his horror leanings to rest in favor of drama. While busily working as a script doctor up through 1999 when he returned to adapting Stephen King with the fantastical The Green Mile, the director continuously moved away from his horror roots until the box office failure of his 2001 ode to Frank Capra The Majestic prompted him to return to the genre that opened doors for him in the first place. In what would become the director’s third adaptation of a Stephen King story and his first theatrical horror film, Frank Darabont’s The Mist snuck up on unsuspecting viewers in 2007 with its dark and foreboding vision of King’s 1980 novella in ways that some still haven’t fully recovered from to this day.
Closer to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead than John Carpenter’s The Fog which couldn’t be more unrelated despite frequent comparisons drawn between the two, the film is both a creature feature as well as a claustrophobic and devastating parable about the nature of survivalist mob mentality under duress and fear of the unknown. Concerning an ensemble cast featuring Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Andre Braugher and Toby Jones who find themselves trapped inside a local supermarket when an unearthly mist concealing otherworldly creatures befalls the town of Bridgton, Maine, things go from bad to worse in a short amount of time as old superstitions arise amid the intensifying apocalypse plaguing the town. The question soon becomes which of the monsters are more dangerous, the humans or the creatures? One of the strengths of the story and how it plays out on film is how Darabont introduces each of the characters’ backstories almost in passing, giving viewers enough information as to which personalities could react the strongest or transform into a mere shadow of their former selves in the face of a deadly and inexplicable phenomenon. Much like The Twilight Zone episodes The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, the strange occurrences possibly involving a UFO are secondary to the reactions the sighting engenders in the once tranquil and friendly neighborhood now turned into a paranoid war zone. As frightening as the otherworldly events are, the real terrors stem from the very people you think you’ve known all your life and begs the question how you too might react to such a catastrophic event.
In mismatched hands, King’s cocktail of the inter-dimensional, the otherworldly and the small group of survivors could well have gone the hokey route of Lawrence Kasdan’s Dreamcatcher, which is still among the most ridiculous horror films of its time. But with Darabont behind the camera and seen in the director’s preferred black-and-white home video version, The Mist is a ferociously bleak horror film that manages to eclipse the dark waters treaded by The Thing, The Fly, Inside and The Descent combined. The film is of course aided by fine performances from its central cast with a standout portrait of a holy roller named Mrs. Carmody in the grip of theological madness and power played by Marcia Gay Harden in one of the great horror villains in recent memory. Thomas Jane, fresh off of The Punisher, imbues the local artist and family man David Drayton with compassion and admirable leadership qualities, pitting his own rationale against a bevy of skepticism and eventual Middle Ages superstition engendered by Carmody. Equally strong in bit parts are Andre Braugher as an attorney who refuses to believe any of Drayton’s claims about strange creatures, Toby Jones as the supermarket’s assistant manager and William Sadler as a hick local mechanic whose alliances fall easy prey to his own fears.
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Not all of it runs smoothly as the creature feature elements akin to King’s later works including the aforementioned Dreamcatcher border on silliness with some entities including a Pterodactyl kind of creature rendered with distracting CGI that work against the prosthetic effects. The special effects scenes benefit greatly however from a black and white director’s cut, hiding some of the limitations of the CG work and looking closer to an older horror thriller from the 1960s which it is most directly inspired by. I also found the presence of the Wilhelm Scream near the end to be distracting even though every science-fiction horror filmmaker in the history of time has a burning desire to stick it on their soundtracks. That said, this is a solid modern horror film adaptation of King’s novella, among the best cinematic adaptations since Misery in my opinion. As a Darabont film, it’s a clever reimagining of Night of the Living Dead filtered through the prism of King’s narrative and represents the director’s first official theatrical horror film. For those who like their Stephen King horror on the edgier and more horrific side, The Mist will give you the science fiction horror film experience Twilight Zone: The Movie should have been as it sneaks up on you and pummels you into the ground before leaving you for dead.
- Andrew Kotwicki