Directed by: Frank Darabont || Produced by: Frank Darabont, Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer
Screenplay by: Frank Darabont || Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, William Sadler, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Sternhagen, Samuel Witwer, Alexa Davalos, Nathan Gamble, Chris Owen, Robert Treveiler, David Jensen, Buck Taylor
Music by: Mark Isham || Cinematography: Rohn Schmidt || Edited by: Hunter M. Via || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 126 minutes
From jump scares to torture porn to poorly staged exorcisms, mainstream audiences and most filmmakers have reduced horror filmmaking to “shock and awe” tactics. Jump scares are startling, torture porn and excessive gore are disgusting, and overacting with the hamfisted disguise of social or religious commentary grabs your attention the way a screaming toddler on a 14-hour flight does when you’re trying to sleep. These tactics are almost never horrifying because they’re not designed to convey horror to their audience.
A reason for this frequent misuse of storytelling techniques in horror films is that most people, viewers or filmmakers, don’t understand the definition of horror. Horror — often used in conjunction with terror, the feelings of intense dread, fear, and suspense before a horrifying experience — is the feeling of revulsion and awful realization following a scary or otherwise unsettling encounter. Nowhere in that definition is a formula for disgust, loud noises, or giving your audience a cheap elevation in blood pressure. That’s not to say horror narratives can’t include those elements, of course, but horror filmmaking necessitates a form of blood curdling revelation that lasts beyond the climax of a loaded musical cue. A loud noise or spectacular blood squib isn’t enough.
Few storytellers understand the nuances of horror like prolific author Stephen King, and fewer filmmakers are as competent adapting his material to screen as writer-director Frank Darabont. Though most audiences are familiar with his critically lauded adaptations of King’s dramatic works (e.g. The Shawshank Redemption , The Green Mile ), Darabont cut his teeth writing or co-writing independent horror features like The Blob remake (1988), The Fly II (1989), and Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987).
Darabont’s transition to horror filmmaking is often confused with John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) and its 2005 remake, which does this near-perfect tale of paranoia, mob justice, and monsters a disservice. While much of horror filmmaking and much of King’s work in particular has become a cliche for reducing horror to psychological or social commentary, however insightful, The Mist is an unnerving, haunting cinematic experience that doesn’t forgo the horrifying implications of the trials and tribulations its characters experience. From spine-tingling suspense to downright tragic aftermath, Darabont’s classical take on microcosmic horror demonstrates the power of the genre to not only scare and enlighten, but emotionally crush.
The Mist adapts the Night of the Living Dead (1968) premise by gathering an ensemble cast of character actors in a single location for the majority of its running time. Narratives such as these tonally reflect survival or shipwreck stories with sinister twists; in the case of this film, its principle characters are trapped in a small town supermarket when an ominous, perhaps supernatural mist envelopes their town, unleashing an inexplicable torrent of horrific creatures upon them. Needless to say, the exact nature of these beasts is little different from other, more stereotypical hordes such as zombies or rabid vampires, and they don’t function much differently in this story beyond surface level aesthetics. The titular mist itself, however, lends both visual as well as thematic and structural flair to the movie’s monsters and its characters’ reactions to them.
Because of its claustrophobic design, The Mist’s use of, well… mist affects the story’s pacing for the better. After an initial setup wherein all major characters are gathered at their principle location (the supermarket), the titular mist arrives. A good fifteen minutes pass before any identifiable threat attacks the group, however, and even that only involves a few characters separated from the main hub. A further twenty minutes pass before the former characters, now scarred from their initial limited encounter, are able to convince the troop at large how dire their situation is, after which shit hits the fan. Altogether, more than fifty minutes of screentime is devoted to building narrative tension before The Mist becomes truly horrifying; given how this deliberate approach makes The Mist’s scares that much more satisfying vindicates Darabont’s patience as a screenwriter. The action escalates once all the characters appreciate the magnitude of their peril, and then the unnerving social breakdown begins.
Much has been discussed about The Mist’s sociopolitical, dare I say anthropological themes; it’s not exactly novel thematic territory, the idea that the people with whom you’re trapped in a terrible situation may be your greatest threat, that most people have it in them to be monsters, that people in general are close-minded, pre-programmed to respond to authority, and sectarian. That being said, Darabont pulls off this commentary through effective character archetypes, the aforementioned brilliant pacing, and a killer ending. It takes Night of the Living Dead’s unabashed B-movie premise and transforms it into an A-movie.
The Mist is filmed in a modern televisual, documentarian style, but televisual in terms of cinema verite realism and efficiency, not televisual as in bland and formulaic a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Much of the production crew worked on The Shield (2002-2008), and that handheld, free-form cinematography is distinct throughout the film. When Darabont uses more elaborate camera maneuvers, such as in the opening dolly that introduces protagonist Thomas Jane, or the SteadiCam oner depicting the aftermath of a thunderstorm that sets the plot in motion, these movements are pronounced against the film’s primary documentarian aesthetics. The longer the story unfolds and the more frantic the characters become, the more intense the camerawork becomes.
The final cinematographic features to discuss are somewhat controversial and operate in tandem. Darabont’s preferred cut of the film is its black-and-white version, which accentuates the story’s ambivalent throwback setting, as well as hides the questionable CGI creature FX. While a case could be made for filming the monster-free scenes in color, the contrast between the digital FX with color and without is night and day. I’m not sure why Darabont couldn’t have used practical FX (puppets, tentacles, small insect models, etc.) given how the studio forced him to shoot the theatrical release in color; perhaps the flexibility involving almost exclusive CGI FX freed time and resources elsewhere, but as it stands, the director’s preferred black-and-white version is the sole means of overlooking the lackluster FX, in my mind. The lack of color also emphasizes the abstract, cosmic horror of the mist itself, which comes in handy for the sledgehammer of an ending.
Speaking of that ending, The Mist’s notorious final moments are legendary among the modern horror cannon; I knew there was a twist coming and still I was bamboozled, but in the most tragic, artful way possible. Normally, I scoff at spoiler warnings for all but my most beloved properties (Star Wars [1977–2015], Aliens [1979, 1986]) given my relative disinterest in narrative “gotcha!”-moments, but for the love God, you must watch this film with no knowledge of how it ends. The Mist would still be a good horror film without its notable improvement over Stephen King’s original conclusion, but with its deadly new coda, The Mist becomes a great one. See it fresh.
Given its confluence of period ambivalence, documentarian and traditionalist cinematography, terrific screenwriting, and thematic respect for horror, Darabont’s pet-project remains one of the few Stephen King horror stories to rival, let alone surpass its literary counterpart. Its sucker punch of an ending elevates the material more than most endings, but that’s no slight against the rest of the film. The Mist is a true horror movie in every sense of the word, forgoing jump scores, gratuitous gore, and cornball exorcism plot devices to produce a tale that is truly unsettling. Where as most people’s ideas of what constitutes a scary movie consist of an object leaping at the camera, followed by a cut to black, The Mist has its characters writhing in turmoil at the horror they created themselves.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Frank Darabont’s work on The Mist emphasizes how much his dismissal from something like The Walking Dead (2010-present) creatively handicapped that project, because this adaptation of Stephen King’s novella is powerful. In many ways, this is the John Carpenter tribute to H. P. Lovecraft that even The Apocalypse Trilogy (1982, 1987, 1994) couldn’t match. Its screenplay outdoes the original work, thematically speaking, and Darabont’s fusion of traditional and classical visual elements brings the story to life.
— However… those CGI FX need help from the black-and-white version. Skip the color feature, please.
—> The Mist earns MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION. Let your horror films be horrifying.
? Is this what 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) would have felt like without the ridiculous action sequence at the end?