Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sifting Through The Mist

In the very first shot of THE MIST we get a look at several striking pieces of artwork as we are introduced to Thomas Jane’s character. We shortly find out he designs movie posters and in fact the pieces of art we see were all drawn by Drew Struzan who, if you looked him, you would learn that he has designed at least a few of your favorite movie posters. We get a little bit of dialogue about this, including a welcome slam at lame photoshopped posters consisting of “two heads” but it’s impossible to notice that in that very first shot one of the posters is very obviously the legendary artwork for John Carpenter’s THE THING. It’s a bold move on writer/director Frank Darabont’s part, reminding us of an inarguable horror masterpiece right of the bat, but one I at first thought was a mistake—after all, how could what we were about to see live up to that memory. Now, thinking back on it, my feeling is that Frank Darabont wasn’t saying he was going to deliver us the next great horror masterpiece as much as giving us a reminder about these great films we used to know and he simply wants to aspire to giving us that feeling once again.

Back in the day Darabont had a hand in the scripts of a few films that I would hold up as examples of eighties horror that I like: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS and the 1988 remake of THE BLOB. Both were directed by Chuck Russell and both pulled off that appropriate feel of what they were supposed to be and is something that Darabont is obviously attempting to return to here (we’ll avoid any mention of THE FLY II). I’m as big a fan of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION as most of the world is, but not so much his other films. THE MAJESTIC, for one, really is terrible. I would call THE MIST a return to the genre for Darabont, but that kind of undersells it. Instead, it feels like a full embrace of a type of film he’s always loved and maybe misses dearly. In the course of these two-plus hours, he makes up for lost time.

For those who haven’t read the Stephen King novella (I did, but it was so long ago that I remember next to nothing about it), THE MIST is primarily set in a Maine supermarket, just after a torrential storm. As citizens of a small town scramble to buy food and supplies, a strange mist suddenly appears and they quickly learn that it’s not going to let any of them leave there alive. Just about the only thing I do remember about the novella was the mundane effectiveness of the setting and Darabont nails that element which has stayed with me.

Simply put, I think the film of THE MIST works pretty damn well. It’s not perfect—an early sequence heavy in CGI contains some shots which look a little unfinished. I also wish Darabont the director had forced himself to get this thing down to under two hours, as some other early scenes just feel a little too slack. There’s probably a naturalistic flavor the film is going for and at times that succeeds, but at other times it gets in the way of the tension we need to be feeling. Fortunately, the pace soon picks up as it needs to and even the expected CGI effects become effective and even pretty damn scary. The film also has the advantage of a very strong cast in addition to Jane, including Andre Braugher, Laurie Holden, Marcia Gay Harden along with Darabont veterans William Sadler and Jeffrey DeMunn, each of which are played very much as real people, not simply as stock types. But it’s Toby Jones (Capote in the Capote film no one saw) , the supermarket employee who turns out to be more dependant than anyone expects, who steals the movie and manages to get the audience on his side almost more than anyone else. There’s a lot going on in this supermarket during the film and Darabont doesn’t slack off over certain details. The extensive effects don’t overwhelm the actors and the people remain believable, even if some of them out of necessity go as over the top as some might in such a situation.

The mood I was in this Thanksgiving, it wasn’t a day where I wanted a schmaltzy feel good movie. Good thing I chose THE MIST—like the best of King, it’s a dark tale where the humans are as bad as the monsters and the fact that they are recognizably human as this happens makes it all the more terrifying. The film is scary, gory and mean, just as it should be. And the ending, about as dark and unexpected as is possible, was so much the thing I needed on such a day, it made me want to leave the theater doing a jig. It's not from the book, but King apparently approves and it fits in with some of his other work so well it's hard to believe it didn't originate with him. And like all endings of this type, it totally alters the movie and makes it something other than what it had been up to this point. People will hate this film, just as they hated Carpenter’s THE THING back in the day. And while it doesn’t rank alongside that landmark, as time goes on I think people will realize how much Darabont has succeeded in capturing some of the feel of terror that film had. At the very least, it’s earned the right to be mentioned in the same sentence.


Unknown said...

I entirely agree. The relationship the movie has with Carpenter's film is not only in its dead serious approach to an apocalyptic situation, but in its preoccupation with... tentacles. And not the Italian movie TENTACLES. I would say the Lovecraftian imagery of THE MIST ups THE THING's ante, which is a pretty unexpected thing for any horror movie to pull off.

I can't say I found THE MIST entirely satisfying, because of all the things you mentioned, but it surely is one of the most interesting American horror films in years. And, as you note, just like THE THING, it isn't making any money in theaters.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Sadly, I've never seen TENTACLES. Which is strange, because I love Italian horror movies that star Henry Fonda and Shelley Winters. I'm glad you at least appreciated THE MIST, even if it didn't entirely work for you. I hope that as time goes on more people will check it out and be open to, as you said, its dead serious approach.