Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Mist

This review is both simultaneously too early and too late; too early for the film's theatrical release here in dear Old Blighty, too late for its DVD release in the states (I watched it on a DVD that my parents very kindly brought me back from a recent sojourn over there) but I can't keep my excitement in about it.

There's something in the mist!

Or 'Stephen King's The Mist' if you're not into the whole brevity thing.

In the wake of a terrible storm, a mysterious fog (I've already used 'Mist' too many times) descends over a small town in Maine, trapping several people inside a convenience store, including movie poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane, it what should rightfully be a career-making role), his son Billy, store manager Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones) and Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a local eccentric who perceives the mist as the ending of the world. Why so much concern about the mist? Well, there's something in that mist...

I've been looking forward to this film for some time as I like the work of screenwriter-director Frank Darabont and his previous adaptations of King stories have, in my opinion, made for very good films. Not masterpieces, but very good films. I've also just recently read the novella upon which the film is based and, in general, I find that films based on King's novellas and short stories tend to be better than those based on his novels. Throw into the mix a creepy, claustrophobic story of personal horror and the ugliness of humanity, and my expectations were set rather high. Fortunately, the film delivered.

Unlike a lot of horror films I've seen recently, with the very notable exception of The Orphanage, 'The Mist' is not about blood and guts (though there's nothing wrong with that); it's about suspense, atmosphere and characters. Though Darabont jettisons the novella's slow-build in favour of a more immediate way into the story, he doesn't lose the sense of dread and entrapment that I loved about the novella. Once the characters find themselves trapped between aisles and with things (no other word for them) outside, you know that they and you are in for a bumpy ride. There's a really raw feeling to the film and it's got a documentary aesthetic (courtesy of the film crew of brilliantly grimy US cop show 'The Shield', fans of which will notice some obvious stylistic similarities) that I found very compelling, adding to the sense of sheer, unfettered panic. I'm always drawn to films that use small, enclosed spaces to stage their action, and The Mist is a great example of this style of film-making. Bar the opening scene, pretty much everything that happens in the film takes place in a confined space, or in a place where it is so impossible to see that it might as well be confined. The sense of creeping, inescapable dread is palpable, making the moments when nothing is happening just as uneasy as those when people are getting ripped to shreds. The use of a large ensemble cast of both main characters and extras adds to this sense of confusion and goes a long way to establishing the atmosphere of the film as one of fear, panic and helplessness. Y'know, all the fun stuff.

Now, I said earlier that The Mist isn't about blood and guts, and it isn't, but that doesn't mean there isn't any. Or that it isn't quite nasty; flesh being ripped out, torsos being mangled, bodies being eaten from the inside out; all sorts of stuff that'll make you grimace and smile at the same time.. There's a certain glee to its gore, as if the film knows that those moments are going to be relatively few and far between and that it should really get its money worth each time, with characters being disposed of in a number of inventive ways that run the gamut from wince-inducing to downright sickening. Though the restraint and atmosphere are what make the film memorable and should be applauded for doing so, it's nice to see it let loose once in a while, since those moments are easily the most enjoyable.

The creature effects, by the same group that worked on Pan's Labyrinth, are superb, creating some really unique and creepy critters to terrorise the hapless sods, even if a lot of them are only half-seen or flit around too quickly to be noticed. Some of the CGI isn't entirely convincing, but considering how small the budget of the film was and just how damn good it is, you can't hold that against them.

But the creatures, good as they are, are not what makes The Mist terrifying. It seems a bit trite and cliched to say it, but the horror of The Mist really does lie with the humans, not the creatures that assail them. Within minutes of their first encounter with the mist and its many-limbed horrors, we see the people trapped inside the shop begin to break down. Some turn to drink, others try to busy themselves with shoring up the defenses, and others are drawn to the apocalyptic ravings of Mrs. Carmody, who sees the mist as a punishment from God visited upon the corrupt people of the Earth, and nothing will appease it except 'expiation'. Carmody is a truly great film villain and Marcia Gay Harden is superb in the role; part lunatic, part prophet, it's all too easy to see how people, scared and defenseless, would be drawn to her end of days fervour, making the actions of people who had otherwise been rational all too understandable, and all too horrific for it. You also can't help but wonder if there is a subtext to the film about modern America, certainly the unknown, undefinable threat of the mist is not a million miles aware from the unknown, undefinable threat of terrorism, and the way in which rational people are sidelined by staring evangelists is not without a real world equivalent. However, like any good horror with a social conscience, you can also just enjoy the blood, guts and expertly handled scares.

The sense of claustrophobia, paranoia and prejudice reminded me very strongly of the Twilight Zone episode 'The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street', in which a neighbourhood of people who are otherwise friendly, genial people turn on each other when they suspect that one or more of them may not be of this Earth. 'The Mist' takes this sort of premise and realises it in a full, bloody, heartbreaking way, right from the moment we first see the mist, up until its much talked about ending. Which I'm not going to talk about. Seriously, not a jot. It's too good to discuss. All I'll say is that I loved it and thought it was a really strong, bold ending to a strong, bold film.

I have to say, watching The Mist made me a little bit mad. The film hasn't been a tremendous success, possibly because it's too bleak, yet much less intelligent and far less scary horror films have done much better business during the same period. I'm not getting on my high horse or anything (I enjoy some no-nonsense, braindead horror as much as the next man) but it just annoys me that this film hasn't been embraced as it should have because it's great. Really great. A really great horror film that will hopefully find a wider audience on DVD than it seems to have done on its criminally overlooked theatrical run.