Wednesday, March 11, 2009

THE MIST: IS IT THE BEST STEPHEN KING HORROR FILM??? The movies made from Stephen King's horror fiction have notoriously been pretty dismal: we're talkin' THE LAWNMOWER MAN, CHRISTINE, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, SLEEPWALKERS....the list goes on and they're dogs all. The movies made from his non-horror work (STAND BY ME, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, MISERY) -- kinda a lot better, I'd say. But for some reason King's horror fiction (for which he is obviously best known) have resulted in some piss-poor movies; this is the opinion of the author himself, by all accounts. My nominee for the best film of a Stephen King horror novel has always been the 1979 TV adaptation of SALEM'S LOT starring David Soul and James Mason and directed by Tobe Hooper. It certainly is the most enjoyable. The 1990 TV movie of STEPHEN KING'S IT starring Tim Curry as a magnificent Pennywise the Clown features a terrific first half (like SALEM'S LOT, IT was shown over two nights in two parts) and a huge letdown in the second half. The other actual "theatrically-released" movies which generally have been considered the most successful are THE SHINING starring Jack Nicholson and CARRIE starring Sissy Spaceship and a magnificent Piper Laurie. While my feelings toward THE SHINING have improved in recent years (meaning I quite like the film), it isn't really Stephen King's THE SHINING but instead it's Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING which departs quite radically from the source novel (by general consensus). And CARRIE is simply OK; nothing particularly great saddled with a . . . well, should I come out and call him a hack . . . director. The trouble with THE SHINING and CARRIE is that both are directed by directors of which I am not very fond: Stanley Kubrick and Brian DePalma. However, such has been the state of Stephen King horror movies that I've held them in the #2 and #3 places as the best following SALEM'S LOT. 2007's THE MIST directed by Frank Darabont changes everything.
Here they MAY be spoilers so if you haven't read the novella or seen the film, you might wanna go watch it before reading this. Made on an apparent shoestring -- starring a cast of mostly unknowns (with a couple exceptions) -- THE MIST is probably the best screen adaptation of a Stephen King horror story. Now, I've gone on record before as not being a particular Stephen King fan; I've only read one novel (SALEM'S LOT), a couple short story collections (NIGHT SHIFT and SKELETON CREW) and the excellent non-fiction DANCE MACABRE. However, I have read the novella THE MIST and have always liked it very much. It's a terrific story, in fact, of a small Maine town (Maine, as everyone knows, is like Stephen King's "Arkham" -- and that H.P. Lovecraft reference will NOT be the last one in this post) which is suddenly blanketed by an opaque mist inside which there be monsters. Now, it's been about a decade and a half (or more) since I've read the novella but I found Frank Darabont's film (which he wrote as well as directed) to be very faithful to the novella. However, be warned. While SALEM'S LOT may be a lot of fun, THE MIST isn't; it's an extremely grim and harrowing movie which tied my guts in knots. Not because of the monsters but because of the too-real portrayal of typical mob mentality. Confronted with the unknown and threatening, the ordinary folks trapped in the supermarket quickly (and I mean VERY quickly) turn into superstition-fueled, reptile-brain-functioning reactionary monsters which are frankly more frightening to me than the slimy creatures outside in the mist! The most problems are caused, of course, by the more-and-more unhinged radical religious zealot Mrs. Carmody (brilliantly portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden -- in fact SO brilliantly portrayed that I hated her guts!) who seems to regard God as the wrathful, vengeful fuckhead stomping around the Old Testament instead of the God of love we more-reasonable people seem to think He is. Mrs. Carmody views the mist monsters as God's wrath brought down upon the supposedly sinful inhabitants of the town. Of course, the visible evidence of townsfolk sinning only starts when egged on by Mrs. Carmody who quickly manages to whip up the mob into committing beatings and attempting to throw a child to the monsters as a "blood sacrifice" appeasement -- all the while quoting the Bible story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac -- and conveniently forgetting that God prevented Abraham from doing it. James Mason made the same mistake in the 1956 Nicholas Ray film BIGGER THAN LIFE; of course, his character is seriously mentally ill and addicted to cortisone. When Mason's wife correctly points out that God stopped Abraham from stabbing his son, Mason shouts out the typical cry of a hypocritical religious zealot seriously devoid of the facts: "Then God was WRONG!" Marcia Gay Harden's Mrs. Carmody is something of a cross between James Mason's BIGGER THAN LIFE character and Piper Laurie's mother from CARRIE. And boy, did I hate her during the film. What a well done acting job, then! Probably my favourite moment in the film is when Mrs. Carmody is pontificating some particularly nasty rubbish and is hit in the forehead by a can of peas thrown by the beloved actress Frances Sternhagen! Stoning people who piss you off, Sternhagen says, is quite appropriate. After all, it's in the Bible! And she's got plenty of cans of peas left! Brilliant!
But let's get to the leading man: Thomas Jane plays the father and husband who takes his young son (Nathan Gamble) and feuding neighbour (Andre Braugher) into town to the supermarket after a freakishly violent storm the night before has cut the town's power and sent a tree hurtling through his picture window. Unfortunately for her, the wife and mother is left behind at their house. Before leaving, they notice a thick, white, opaque mist rolling in over the lake. By the time they get to the supermarket (packed with townspeople also getting supplies), a man comes running into the store bleeding from the nose and screaming about monsters in the mist. As the mist closes in on the front windows of the supermarket, a customer decides to make a run for his car, is engulfed in the mist and begins screaming horribly. The townsfolk decide it might be a good idea to stay inside the store. A mother announces that she HAS to leave since she's left her 8 year old daughter watching her even younger son and has no choice. This mother is played by unknown local actress Melissa Suzanne McBride and she is absolutely showstopping! Someone needs to give this actress work pronto! Her desperate yet quiet pleading for someone to go with her into the mist falls on deaf ears as she challenges first one person and then another to "walk a lady home". No one volunteers and the mother goes off into the mist alone. The funniest part about all this is that, somehow, at the end of the film we see her and her two children made it! This one small scene so impressed everyone on set that they broke into spontaneous applause.
The store's electrical generator conks out and a group goes back to the store's loading dock to fix it. While back there, huge tentacles slither under the loading dock door and drag a stock boy to his death. While the group (lead by Thomas Jane) tries to convince everyone that there really ARE monsters in the mist, another group (lead by Andre Braugher) thinks they're playing a sick joke and there's nothing out there. Sadly, Braugher gets a group together to venture out into the mist and get help and they're never seen again. When night falls, huge insect-like monsters fly up against the glass storefront. Even larger pterodactyl-like flying creatures, trying to gobble up the insects on the glass, break through and wind up in the store causing more carnage! A man set alight by makeshift torches suffers so much pain that a group (again led by leading man Thomas Jane) decides to venture next door to the pharmacy for some painkillers and antibiotics. Inside the pharmacy, they discover monstrous webs inside which is a previously-seen MP who tells them this was all caused by a secret government/military project nearby -- right before his entire body explodes with baby spiders. The HUGE spider-monsters who laid the eggs inside the MP attack the group and Frances Sternhagen again shows the stuff she's made of by cobbling together a makeshift flame flower from a lighter and an aerosol spray can. The group makes it back into the supermarket with quite a few less members than they left with. Things get worse and worse. As I said, this film is a very grim affair and their are deaths (and suicides) galore! As the movie unspools, the viewer is left with the sickening sensation that maybe nobody's going to get out alive. And there is quite some justification in this feeling. As things look bleaker, Mrs. Carmody's followers grow more numerous until the saner group led by Thomas Jane decide to leave before their resident Jim Jones starts doling out the kool-aid. Mrs. Carmody's Stepford shitheads discover they're planning to leave and try to stop them. Mrs. Carmody even demands they throw Thomas Jane's young son to the monsters in order to save themselves.
Aside from the top notch writing and directing by Frank Darabont, the acting of the entire cast is universally excellent. Thomas Jane (an actor I'm completely unfamiliar with) makes a great leading man; he has a screen presence which makes him quite watchable and the actor deserves more high-profile roles. Andre Braugher is terrific as usual as the skeptical neighbour; it's only too sad that he's gone from the picture before the first hour of screentime is up. Laurie Holden plays Amanda -- a young schoolteacher who may be a potential love interest for Thomas Jane. . .if they all survive, that is. Holden is also extremely well-cast and does a fine acting job demonstrating both strength and vulnerability. The smaller roles are filled with a bunch of fine if little known actors lead by the always wonderful Frances Sternhagen. While I'm still not much of a fan of CGI, the copious special effects are rather well-done (especially considering the film's relatively low budget) and veteran "head exploder" Greg Nicotero is also on hand to provide the appropriate grisly gore. Particularly impressive is the special effect of the mist itself rolling into town. Things like mist or fog or water etc. are notoriously hard to pull off effectively in CGI but here the mist rolls in very realistically over cars and buildings. The monsters are also fairly convincing. I mentioned H.P. Lovecraft earlier and there is, in fact, a little bit of a Lovecraftian feel to both King's original novella and this film. The "government project" nearby which apparently caused all this mess opened a portal to another dimension through which came the mist and these monsters. Other dimensional cosmic creepies is a very Lovecraftian concept and, toward the end of the film when our small group has left the supermarket and is driving through the mist they see a huge, tentacled monster stomp across the landscape which can ONLY be described as "Lovecraftian". This is a nice touch -- although the CGI monster should've been MUCH huger, I think. As I said, THE MIST is a grim and downbeat movie which makes it more of an ordeal to watch than a funfest. And just when you think things CAN'T get any worse or more depressing. . .there's the ending of the film! However, it is an extremely well-done adaptation of a great Stephen King story and for that -- while it's probably not a movie to watch over and over -- it is still probably the best screen adaptation of any of Stephen King's horror fiction.

4 comments:

Cheekies said...

Yeah the ending was a huge shocking surprise that was not in the novella. They wanted to make the movie have more of an ending since the novella was open ended.

Pax Romano said...

Excellent review.

I think that Marcia Gay Harden's performance was Oscar worthy (but, hey that's just me).

Weaverman said...

I've pretty much given up on King but you have tweaked my interest on this one.

Cerpts said...

Cheekies,

Definitely a jaw-dropping ending when you sit there and think "Wow, I didn't really think they were gonna GO there!"

Daddy Pax,

Much thanks. I hope you didn't mind my DePalma bashing :) but I must say that EARLY DePalma I can watch -- that includes CARRIE obviously but also PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and also I think I like GREETINGS best of all his films.

Weaverman,

Just like you, I had long ago given up on Stephen King horror movies but I can assure you THIS one is the exception.