In the opening scenes of Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” an artist is creating his latest work on an easel as a storm crackles outside his window. The artist is David Drayton, played by Thomas Jane. Drayton creates movie poster art- this may the only instance where such an artist is a character in a movie. Drayton’s wife and son, Billy (played especially well by Nathan Gamble) huddle together in front of the window and watch the weather unfold into something scary and threatening. It is the first of many shots in the film where men and women are peering at an uncontrollable threat with only a sheet of glass to protect them.
The following day, after some swift and well written relationship-establishing scenes, Drayton takes his son and his neighbor Brent (Andre Braugher) to the local supermarket. Among those present are the kind local grocer (played by Toby Jones), the local town wacko (played by Marcia Gay Harden), a former school teacher (played by Frances Sternhagen) and noted “underachiever” (played by William Sadler). Drayton, his son and everyone shopping witnesses a crazed local (played by Jeffrey DeMunn) as he runs screaming into the store and begs someone to lock the doors. His reason: “there’s something in the mist.”
I caught up with Stephen King’s novella, “The Mist” in college, but not because I read it. Actually, I heard it. Most Stephen King fans I know first encountered King’s tale the same way: in 1983, a fondly remembered audio book was released, touting “3-D sound” and featuring vocal performances and excellent sound effects. If you listened to it with ear phones, you could hear monsters slither around you, secret whispers made in the distance and the mounting panic of normal everyday town folk pushed up against and wall and going all “Lord of the Flies” on each other.
Darabont’s movie was a surprise for filmgoers who knew him as the director of “The Shawshank Redemption.” Movie buffs familiar with his work will recall that Darabont authored the fine 1988 remake of “The Blob,” which is one of the classic monster movies that gets a nod here. There are also shades of “The Birds,” “Alien,” and the famous “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Despite Darabont’s serving up a potentially B-movie premise, he’s not kidding around here.
Rather than offer straight forward cinematography, “The Mist” was filmed with multiple hand-held cameras, creating unobtrusive, fluid storytelling that stops short of suggesting a faux documentary. There’s an intimacy between us and the actors that the ground-level, multi-perspective cameras allow. While the CGI effects are hit and miss, the monsters induce awe when shrouded in murk but are frightening up close. Darabont’s music choices, both Mark Isham’s score and the somber piece that plays over the final act, are effectively unsettling.
The dread-inducing kick here isn’t that there are monsters outside of the supermarket but how the seemingly normal, recognizable humans trapped inside gradually become an even greater threat to one another. Darabont’s screenplay allows for brief but satisfying characterizations, so that the cast, all of whom are excellent, isn’t stuck with one-note roles. I especially admired Jane’s relatable turn and Braugher’s amusing slow burn but its Harden’s work that has never left my mind.
As the story becomes “Our Town” ascending into hell, “The Mist” shows its hand and reveals its intent as an allegory. If every town member in the supermarket represents a microcosm of American life, then everyone in there, even our heroes, are capable of horrific behavior. Note how Drayton’s son ironically asks him, “Don’t let the monsters get me, Daddy,” a request that applies to those outside and within the store. Some noted that Darabont’s social commentary is too much for a monster movie throwback. Indeed, his film is heavy handed but Darabont is also right. Ten years later, the pessimism of “The Mist,” both in its character studies and overall conclusions about humanity, doesn’t feel unreasonable.
I won’t describe the film’s deservedly much-discussed ending. Of its lingering power, Darabont deserves credit for committing to concluding his film with such a brave, devastating finish. I love the way the film ends, even as it leaves me drained and fighting back tears. The biggest compliment I could give Darabont is that only Rod Serling could have come up with a final reveal as cruel yet extraordinary. “The Mist” intends to rattle you and it does.