Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Mist (2007)

Directed by: Frank Darabont
Screenplay by: Frank Darabont, based on the novella “The Mist” by Stephen King
Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andrew Braugher, Toby Jones, William Sadler, Jeffery DeMunn
Running Time: 126 minutes
Tagline: “Fear Changes Everything.”

This is what happened.

Artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) isn’t happy when he emerges from the cellar of his home with his family the morning after the small town of Bridgton, Maine (played by Shreveport, Louisiana, I say with some pride) is hit by what has got to be the most savage thunderstorm in recent memory. There’s a gigantic tree parked on top of the extension that he used for a studio, not only wrecking his work space but completely ruining his latest project, -- a poster for a movie adaptation of THE DARK TOWER, no less -- and if that wasn’t bad enough, the Drayton’s boathouse has been completely flattened by another tree, an old dead one that belonged to his next door neighbor, New Jersey lawyer Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), and has been a bone of contention between the two men, whose relationship can be described as adversarial at best. So you can imagine Drayton’s relief when, due to yet another tree getting dropped on Norton’s vintage Mercedes, his normally bull-headed neighbor is willing to call a truce and even asks to join Drayton and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) when they make a supply run into town. It seems that the whole town had the same idea that Drayton and company did, though, because when they arrive at the local supermarket, the place is packed. Unfortunately, the power is out and with the market’s generators only there to keep the freezers running, everyone’s going to have to be rung up the old fashioned way. That little supply run is going to take a lot longer than anyone expected.

With more immediate problems on their mind, you can’t really blame Drayton, Norton, or anyone else around town for not giving too much thought to some rather strange goings on. All radio, cell phone, and land line communication seems to be inoperable, for one. Not too alarming, I suppose, considering the storm last night, but then there’s the unusually large number of military vehicles heading en masse to the army base located on the other side of the lake. That base would home to the enigmatically named Arrowhead Project, the exact purpose of which has been the topic of gleeful speculation for the more conspiracy minded of Bridgton residents. Stranger still is this weird fogbank that’s been hanging around since the storm. It seems to originate from the same direction as the Arrowhead Project, and while fog obviously isn’t unusual for a lakeside town, this particular one doesn’t seem to be behaving like any natural phenomena anyone’s seen before. It’s moving against the wind for one and as it slowly makes it way further and further into town, we get more and more signs that something’s wrong. Emergency vehicles come roaring down the road outside the store with their sirens blaring; the firehouse warning horn goes off; then, as the mist begins to envelope the store itself, local man Dan Miller (Jeffery DeMunn) stumbles in covered with blood and screaming his head off about monsters in the mist killing his friend…

“The Mist” was written in 1976 and first saw publication in 1980 as part of Kirby McCauley’s famous “Dark Forces” anthology and you can tell with a glance at the cover of the old hardcover edition that it was meant to be the main attraction; the words “A Short Novel by Stephen King” are printed in noticeably bigger letters than any other name on there. And you should note that the other names listed on that cover includes heavyweights like Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon Joyce Carol Oates, Ramsey Campbell, and Robert Bloch, in case you need a reminder of just how big a deal Stephen King was at the height of his popularity. (I actually had a chance to get my hands on a copy of “Dark Forces” while browsing my favorite used book store once and I don’t think I could tell you why exactly I passed it up even if you put a gun to my head.)  As the story goes in the afterward of “Skeleton Crew,” inspiration came when King found himself in much the same situation that Drayton finds himself at the start, stuck in line with his son at a crowded grocery store after a storm had wreaked havoc, when he was suddenly struck with the image of a prehistoric monster flying around in the store with them. Loving that image, he took to writing as soon as he got home, resulting in a story he described as “THE ALAMO as directed by Bert I. Gordon.”

I definitely think “The Mist” is one of King’s best pieces of short fiction, exciting and fast moving despite clocking in at a hefty-for-a-novella one hundred and thirty plus pages. It’s certainly the story by the man that I’ve read the most over the years. You also don’t have to look far to see the story’s tangible influence on horror and science fiction. The popular video game franchise SILENT HILL begins with a father searching for his child in a town enshrouded by an otherworldly fog that hides pterodon-like creatures and other monstrosities. One of the streets in the town is named after King. HALF-LIFE, which also deals with an intrusion by an alien reality, was originally called QUIVER, a tip of the hat to The Arrowhead Project. Brian Keene’s novel THE DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN simply swapped out the mist for some all consuming Lovecraftian darkness and well, word of advice to all writers: namechecking the work you’re pretty much lifting wholesale from is not the best of ideas. Heck, there was even an episode of ULTRAMAN TIGA that lifted its threat from King’s story and they even titled it “The Mist.” So, with all this in mind, one could wonder why it took until 2007 for a movie based on this story to happen, when even stories like “Graveyard Shift” and “The Mangler” had gotten film adaptations – seriously not very good adaptations -- in the interim. Well, that would have something to do what King would come to refer to as “The Dollar Babies.”

The term “Dollar Baby” is used interchangeably to describe both creators and creations. In 1977, King, after receiving letters from college students seeking permission to make films and plays based off of his work, decided to set up a policy that someone could have the one time right to adapt any of his short stories (and only the short stories, mind) in exchange for a single dollar. These works could not be exhibited commercially without approval from King first and he was to receive a video taped copy of the short film once completed. The Dollar Babies were generally not seen outside of film festival circuits and school presentations, and the general impression is that a lot of them weren’t very good, but three of them were considered quality enough to be packaged together and sold as an anthology movie titled STEPHEN KING’S THE NIGHT SHIFT COLLECTION, which was released by Granite Entertainment Group. This trio would include adaptations of “The Boogeyman,” “Disciples of the Crow,” and most importantly, “The Women in the Room” by a then twenty year old aspiring filmmaker by the name of Frank Darabont.

Born in a French refugee camp in 1959 to parents fleeing the Hungarian Revolution, Darabont came to the United States while still an infant, his family eventually settling in Los Angeles right around the time Frank was the age of five. Inspired to pursue a film career after a chance meeting with George Lucas during the filming of THX-1138, Darabont got his start as a production assistant on movies like HELL NIGHT and the original TRANCERS, before taking his first crack at filmmaking with “The Woman in the Room.” By all accounts, Darabont wasn’t particularly happy with how “The Woman In The Room” turned out, but King apparently saw something in it that impressed him and got in touch with Darabont. (The short would also wind up on a semi-finalist list for an Academy Award.) This meeting would be the beginning of a long standing association and friendship between the two men and after Darabont expressed interest in directing another of King’s works as a feature film, the prison drama “Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption,” King famously gave the rights to that story to Darabont for a handshake.

If you only know Darabont’s work from the likes THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE, and THE MAJESTIC, films with painterly visuals and a tonal sensibility influenced by Frank Capra, he might sound like an odd choice for “The Mist.” A quick look at the man’s career between “The Woman In The Room” and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION would dispel this notion. Darabont would spend much of his career during that period as a screenwriter, his first big successes coming via collaboration with Chuck Russell, and he had a hand in writing the screenplays for a number of genre movies that were better than they probably had any right to be: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: THE DREAM WARRIORS, the 1988 remake of THE BLOB -- where else can you see one of the most spectacularly gruesome deaths in b-movies and Shawnee Smith, dressed as cheerleader, spewing profanity and machine gun fire at the titular beastie? – and THE FLY II. His credits also include episodes of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, a regular writing stint on THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES, unaccredited work on the screenplay for THE ROCKETEER and the recent American GODZILLA film, and probably most tantalizingly an unproduced screenplay for a sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscles-and-machine-guns opus COMMANDO. One can only speculate on what that was like.

-- “I didn’t think much of John Matrix when he first arrived at Shawshank…” And clearly Red would be played by Carl Weathers in this version. --

Heck, the man was about ready to accept an offer to direct CHILD’S PLAY 3 before the opportunity to make SHAWSHANK finally came up, if you want another What Could Have Been to dwell on. And an adaptation of “The Mist” was always in the cards for Darabont, weighing it as a possible choice for his first crack at directing a film, and he had King’s full support. Over the years, whenever someone would come around making offers for the film rights to “The Mist” King would inform them that he had already given the rights to Darabont.

It seems that even Darabont understood that he seemed like an unusual choice for this project and intended to make something wildly different from what he had done before. Though the budget is substantially higher than most, he intended to shoot the film in the same manner as a low budget horror movie. To help get a handle on shooting things quick and dirty on limited resources, Darabont took to directing episodes of FX’s gritty cop drama THE SHIELD and would hire on the same director of photography, camera crew and editor for this project. THE MIST’s camera work possesses an almost documentary like feel and I think that approach goes a long way in instilling it with a genuine intensity, even outside of its more chaotic scenes. Though it is a nice little touch that those brief moments of calm before and during the monstrous siege are shot more traditionally.

“The Mist” contains what has to be one of the largest and most varied monster menageries you’re likely to find in one of King’s stories, which would probably go a long way to explain why its one of my favorites. There are swarms of man-eating tentacles (“What were those things attached to?”), dog sized spiders, skyscraper dwarfing behemoths, winged insects the size of your head, that “ptero-buzzard” that started it all and gigantic lobster-like monstrosities. So, it’s a little disappointing that the creature effects are something of a mixed bag. Due to the short shooting schedule and prep time, they’re primarily realized through CGI and while there are a number of shots that are absolutely fantastic looking, such as the enormous tentacle that reaches inside the loading dock during the first monster attack or the enjoyably Ray Harryhausen feeling bird creatures, others, such the insects once they’re in the store, stick out too much. (Darabont originally wanted to shoot THE MIST in black and white and this version is included with the DVD release of the film. It does go a long way to covering up some of the rough edges.) On the upside, the monster designs, handled by KNB EFX and artist Bernie Wrightson, are aces, my personal favorite being the “Grey Widower” spiders and their distressingly human like faces. (A nod of the head to a classic OUTER LIMITS episode, it seems) I was also very pleased to see that they completely nailed the scene with the behemoth creature. When word that an adaptation of “The Mist” was being developed, me and probably everyone else who was a fan of that story was hoping they got it right and boy did they ever. Seeing that big sumbitch looming over our characters as it strides on by, blocking out what little of the sun there is has got to be one of my favorite visual spectacles to come out of the past decade and change.

Right about now, you may be asking yourself, “Bill, this is Political Science Fiction review round table. Just what the hell does THE MIST have to do with either of those things?” Well, the science fiction part is easy enough, since we’re on the topic of the film’s monsters. At its heart, THE MIST is an alien invasion story. Or to pit more aptly, an alien intrusion story, the accidental collision between otherworldly life and our own. As unbelievable as these creatures are, they aren’t the Great Old Ones coming forth to overthrow man but animals from a wholly different ecosystem that’s so very not compatible with our own. The spiders only attack because people intruded on their nest, the insects were drawn to a light source like any other bug and the birds were there because they wanted to eat the insects and found something else tasty to gnaw on. This is part of the reason why the actions of Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), your standard King small-town-religious-looney who comes to believe that this mist is some kind of harbinger of the apocalypse and only a “The Lottery”-style blood sacrifice from their number can save them, are so dangerous: predators don’t abandon a convenient food source.

It’s the threat that Mrs. Carmody and her mad beliefs represent to the people inside where the political aspect of the film comes in. For that, we must look from Stephen King to another horror icon whose work holds just as much influence over THE MIST as he does: George Romero. As much as it is an adaptation of King’s work, THE MIST is in many ways a spiritual successor to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Like Romero’s film, THE MIST is an examination of how easily systems can fall apart and groups can cease to function together in times of crisis and you can see traces of NIGHT’s legacy throughout. The film adds in a romance between a local army officer (Sam Witwer) and a cashier (Alexa Davalos) and much like Tom and his girlfriend in NIGHT, being Beautiful Young People In Love does absolutely jack squat to protect them from their eventual grisly ends. Then there’s the character of David Drayton. Now, in King’s novella Drayton is the protagonist but his role in events isn’t nearly as proactive as his movie counterpart. He’s more of a supporting character, in a way, to the story’s version of Dan Miller, and the two men seemed to have switched roles in the transition from source to screen. (Interesting to note that it’s with the death of Miller and another more proactive character in the novella that things really go to hell for people in the store.) Here it’s Drayton that people look to as a leader because he offers a solution considerably more sane than Norton’s willfully oblivious insistence that the mist is nothing to worry about or Mrs. Carmody’s More-Old-Testament-Than-Old-Testament blood and guts approach. Trouble is that David Drayton’s as confused, out of his depth and grasping for solutions as anyone, and much like Ben in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, his role exists to pull the rug out from under the idea of The Hero That Saves The Day…but I’ll get to that in a minute.

What separates the two is the angle they approach this from. NIGHT is all about how Ben and Cooper’s clashing personalities and their need to be the one in charge played a major factor in dooming the people trapped in that farm house. THE MIST comes at it from the idea that if you scare people bad enough, they’ll come running to anyone who offers a solution, whether or not the person offering that solution actually understands what they are dealing with or even if the solution that person offers could potentially be worse than threat. Furthermore, both the story and film are about how mishandling that fear can bring out an ugly side in people who you thought you knew. Mishandling fear is what causes the people in the store to split into factions in the first places. It causes Brent to refuse blatant evidence that there’s more going on than a simple fogbank and his suicidal decision to lead a group out into it early on. We are left to only guess at what their fates are. It's people's fear that empowers Mrs. Carmody and as more and more tragedies occurs, she uses that fear to whip them into a frenzy, leading to the death of an unfortunate convenient scapegoat.
I will agree that things escalate rather quickly in this movie but well, it's a movie. You have only a certain amount of time to get your point across. Fortunately, despite the expediency in which thing go full-on "Lord of the Flies,"  THE MIST never quite devolves into becoming a cartoon. The documentary feel and Darabont's writing plays a part in that but a lot of it comes from the fact that the movie is blessed with an incredibly good cast, including Jane, Jones and Braugher, as well a number of regular players in Darabont's movies. We've got Jeff DeMunn, Laurie Holden, Brian Libby and William Sadler, who funnily enough played David Drayton in an earlier audiobook adaptation of "The Mist." Special consideration must go to Marcia Gay Harden, looking very much like Karen Black, as Mrs. Carmody. Such an extreme character is difficult to pull off and one could easily see the character being too much. She almost is in the story, with her bright yellow pantsuit, crone like appearance, and King's tendency to remind us of her existence by having her cry out "Death!" in the background of certain scenes, which reminds me a little too much of Grandpa Simpson. But Harden pulls it off, giving a performance not all that far removed from Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING; a dangerously unhinged person letting a fevered nastiness to come out and play. The result is one of the most utterly hissable villains to show up in a Stephen King adaptation. I was lucky enough to be one of the few people to see this movie in theaters and when Carmody bought it, the audience cheered.

Audiences were a little more divided in their reactions to the ending which brings us to what becomes of David Drayton and the world at large in THE MIST's closing moments. Spoilers ahoy, obviously. Like I said, Drayton isn't quite as successful a hero that his role in the films usually is and his attempt in the film's ending to spare his loved ones a horrible death ends up backfiring in the worst possible way. This isn't the ending of King's story, which more or less stopped at a good enough point, leaving the characters fates ambiguous. Darabont wanted something more concrete for the conclusion to this film, however, and it's not quite the ass-pull that many of its critics claimed it was. Rather it was Darabont taking one of the more chilling thoughts David has while he and others make his escape in the story and carrying it on through to the worst possible result. I can understand why people hated it. Rewatching the film for Halloween, I came away from it feeling like David Drayton's fate, when piled on top of all the other horrors that occured in the movie was simply too much. It comes dangerously close to simply wallowing in misery, something that THE WALKING DEAD, which Darabont served as a showrunner on for the first two season, is regularly criticized for. But I can't deny that I find it be an effectively done scene, some wonderful bits of acting done almost completely with glances and moments of silence and no matter how many times I've watched this movie, and believe me, I watched it a lot the year it came out, I still flinch when that first gunshot goes off.

But for all the attention the meaningless of Drayton's actions have received, there's something else horrifying about the ending, I find, which gets things back to the political part of the review. There seems to be a curse of sorts for horror films that are allegories of their time to become only more prescient as the years pass. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was never about "THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE COULD, LIKE, TOTALLY HAPPEN BRUH!" but about underlying tensions in the country and a growing distrust with the powers that be. Watch it today and not only has not much changed but one can't help but bring to mind Tamir Rice and others when Ben, a black man, is shot down by law enforcement officers who don't even bother to confirm whether he's a threat or not before they open fire. Likewise, one can easily see THE MIST as playing on tensions of the post 9/11 / Bush-era, with a group of people splitting apart and turning against each other in reaction to a sudden and destructive event. Well, it's unfortunate to say that just under a decade from the film's release, a lot of those tensions and fears are still here and strong as ever. Wouldn't you know, this election year we happen to have a Mrs. Carmody of our own, a candidate who rose to prominence by playing on those fears, by pandering to and whipping the worst parts of the country's psyche into a frenzy, regardless of whether he actually believes or plans to follow to through with any of it. It's unearthed something genuinely ugly. THE MIST ends with the threat banished but the people who survived it will never be able to go back to normal. David Drayton, the others at the supermarket, they'll have to live with what they've done for the rest of their lives. Regardless whether or not that idiot is elected today, the damage he's and his ardent supports have done with this campaign's fearmongering won't go away when the polls close tonight. I doesn't matter if we settle back into our routines, that ugly thing they unearthed is still going to be there, hungry and snapping at our doors. Hell, I can at least empathize with the people in that supermarket. They feared for their lives. What are the hardcore Trumpers afraid of? Being forced to admit that there are different kinds of people in the world? That it's not all aboout them? Is that why they stirred all this crap up, something that we'll have to deal with the ramifications of further down? That doesn't make me want to empathize with them. That just makes me angry.

This review was part of the Celluloid Zeroes Political Science Fiction Roundtable, because we had to do something besides lose our dang minds in anticipation of whatever happens. Hop on over Checkpoint-Telstar to read his take on THE PARALLAX VIEW, Microbrew Reviews for INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and The Terrible Claw Reviews for SHIN GODZILLA before stopping off at Web of the Big Damn Spider for A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND GUESTS.