Attention market shoppers, we have carnage on aisle four.
In the aftermath following a violent storm that wreaked havoc on a small Maine town, movie poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) notices an ominous mist that has appeared over the lake. Packing up his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and offering a ride to his one-time enemy, the New York lawyer Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) with whom he’s begun to tentatively mend fences while evaluating their respective property damage, the three head into town to stock up on supplies for what they predict will be another violent New England storm.
Once inside their local market which, like the town itself, seems to be a place that has escaped time in its quaint 50’s like aura, they share stories with others and are startled when an elderly man runs into the store visibly shaken and bloodied, yelling, “Something in the mist took John Lee! Don’t go out there!"
Something in the man’s tone, not to mention the blood begins to cause a panic and while most feel confident to trust their neighbor, they watch in horror as a disbelieving man exits the store. Shockingly vague violence and screams follow, leaving the man dead and thus begins one of last year’s most chilling sleepers that can only have come from the godfather of suspense himself, Mr. Stephen King.
Adapted by longtime King fan, Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile writer/director Frank Darabont, this moodily haunting horror film sets itself up like a modern episode of The Twilight Zone (and in a DVD feature King notes that he was inspired by the horror classic TV show Panic). With an emphasis on characterization and psychology, we feel as terrified as the townspeople as they barricade themselves inside the market and logically try to deduce not only what’s going on outside the store but also their next steps in how to proceed from there.
Initial worries that the mist was a chemical pollution cloud soon give way to greater fear when the resident town psycho, the (as King said) warden-like Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) pulls out her bible and begins to whip a group of shoppers into a Revelations frenzy saying that the wrath of God has been unleashed on the town heathens and the end is near. After further carnage ensues when additional townspeople are killed by seemingly otherworldly beasts as they test the limits of their imprisonment, soon the store is divided into two groups with Mrs. Carmody gaining momentum on one side and the more proactive, sensible citizens headed up by David Drayton, shopkeeper Ollie Weeks (a terrific Toby Jones) and the town’s new schoolteacher Amanda Dunfrey (star of Darabont’s Majestic, Laurie Holden) becoming the minority banding together in a different aisle.
It’s by this point that the audience, nearly working in tandem with David and his group, try to solve the mystery on their own, although admittedly we realize that the horrifying vagueness of the situation is precisely what is driving most of the fear, as both on and off the screen fingers all seem to point in the direction of the nearby military base long accused of dabbling in the extraterrestrial in a top secret operation called Project Arrowhead.
While we’re never quite sure the mystery itself will be solved, we’re riveted the entire way, although I found myself disappointed when The Mist morphed from a tense, thinking person’s horror film into one obsessed with mutant bird-sized bugs and slimy tentacle creatures as opposed to concentrating on the fear-based psychological breakdown and terrifying "group-think" mentality. Thus, as the running time increases, The Mist becomes an overdone and not terribly satisfying B movie, which may have played better in the black and white photography that director Darabont had intended (and indeed the color and black and white versions will be released in a 2 disc DVD set).
Although granted, Mrs. Carmody’s conversion of the shoppers seems to occur much too quickly, the film’s dual horror show of oversized mutants and bible thumping madmen and women keep us distracted enough to forgive some of the film’s flaws and ultimately its high-speed pace and clever characterization make this a roughly average thriller that’s strengthened considerably by its much discussed, shocking conclusion that, although it wasn’t written in King’s novel, seems to be the only fitting finale. In fact, the conclusion was so vital to the film’s storytelling success that writer/director Darabont received confirmation from the Weinstein Company and Dimension Films that his original script including that unforgettable ending could not be aletered.
Best viewed on a sunny, mist-free day, while Darabont’s The Mist will most likely be overshadowed by superior King adaptations such as Kubrick’s The Shining, Reiner’s Misery and Stand By Me, and Darabont’s own Shawshank Redemption, it’s still a deft chiller and one that, as Darabont noted on the DVD, actually made the legendary King jump “three feet” during a screening of the film. And in the end, box office and reviews aside, scaring King with his own material should be the truest form of evaluation for any King adaptation.