*. It seems to me that any discussion of this movie has to begin, and perhaps even end, with the matter of dates.
*. The original Stephen King story, or novella, it’s based on was first published in 1980. It then appeared in slightly edited form in his collection Skeleton Crew, which came out in 1985.
*. This is important because of a few other dates: George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Romero and King’s collaboration Creepshow (1982). Romero and King are good friends and I think it’s hard to mistake the influence the earlier Romero pictures had on The Mist. In particular the small group of survivors of an apocalyptic event who are besieged by monsters provides the bedrock. The politics aren’t much different either.
*. But this isn’t 1980, or 1985. It’s 2007. Or it might be. There’s a sort of time-warp feel to a lot of the proceedings and it seems a low-tech version of the twenty-first century in a lot of ways. Frank Darabont also originally wanted the movie to be released in black and white because he saw the story as being “a bit of a throwback,” which must have thrilled the studio even less than his downbeat ending.
*. Still on the matter of dates, Darabont also says that the colour version feels “very much like a mid-seventies kind of movie to me.” So we’re still going way back here, to Romero and early King.
*. Another date to keep in mind: 1980. The year of Alien, and creatures bursting out of the bodies of impregnated men. You can’t see the MP stuck in the spider’s cocoon and not think of a similar scene deleted from the theatrical release of Alien (but put back in Aliens). In Creepshow‘s final story we also see cockroaches erupting from the corpse of Upson Pratt. So this was something very much in the air, but again the air of 1980, not 2007. I hasten to add, however, that nothing like it occurs in the novella.
*. In general I like these siege movies, but they do become a bit conventional. What makes this worse here is how schematic it all is. We even get a whole scene where the breakdown of democracy is laid out. When people are frightened, we are told, they will revert to tribal politics and a crude theocracy. Amanda’s “faith in humanity” and belief that “people are basically good, decent” will melt before the fanaticism of Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden).
*. Oh, how King hates these religious fanatics. In a deleted extended scene where Mrs. Carmody is praying in the washroom stall this is really driven home. In the theatrical release we just see her face in close-up, but in the extended scene much is made of the way she’s on her knees praying to a toilet. Get it? If not, her hateful rejoinder to Amanda and subsequent behaviour makes the point loud and clear.
*. There’s stuff to like here, especially from the cast, including a number of Darabont’s regular stable (warming up for The Walking Dead). But there was more that I didn’t like, including some pretty important stuff.
*. For starters, it’s just too long. Darabont really wanted to get it to come in under two hours, which, by his reckoning, he just did (if you don’t count the closing credits). But despite his best efforts it just doesn’t move fast enough, or with enough of a sense of urgency. I also had the feeling that action and suspense sequences are not really Darabont’s thing. They certainly don’t build effectively here.
*. Another thing dragging it down is the CGI work. This really isn’t very good. Our first monster sighting comes with the tentacles reaching into the loading dock, and they’re also the worst. As you know, I’m no big fan of CGI, but I’ll admit it can be very effective when done right. But if it’s off just a bit and you think you’re just looking at a cartoon, you’re in trouble. This movie is in trouble.
*. Then there is the behaviour of the different characters. I had a hard time buying it. Some of the people we meet seem like they are only plot devices if not quite caricatures. There’s mad Mrs. Carmody. There’s the legalistic/rationalistic Judge. There’s the threatened kid and the suddenly vulnerable parent. There are the local yokels who are weak and ignorant bullies. There’s the woman who only wants to go home to her children.
*. About the only counter-intuitive characterization comes with the soldiers. Why are they such wimps? One would expect them to become quasi-authority figures in such a crisis, as they have uniforms and seem to have more information about what’s going on than anyone else. But they are totally useless.
*. Wouldn’t the logical thing to assume about the mist be that it was some kind of poisonous or hallucinatory gas? And yet even before the monsters appear this doesn’t seem to be something anyone even considers. They’re not afraid of the mist per se at all but of what might be in it. This struck me as weird.
*. A good example of the piling up of little, nagging doubts about what was happening comes when David’s group makes it escape from the market to his vehicle. Three things about this scene bugged me.
*. (1) How the hell does the group get separated? They all go out together and they only have a short distance to go to get to David’s vehicle, so how do some of them manage to get lost?
*. (2) Once the one group has made it to the vehicle, why does David lay on the horn and start yelling and screaming to attract the others? Wouldn’t this be a sure way to just get more of the bugs to attack him?
*. (3) When he finally pulls out, why does he put on all of his headlights (and he has stadium lighting rigged out on that Toyota Land Cruiser) to drive through the fog? Seeing as it’s daylight (they planned to leave at dawn) why would they bother? Headlights don’t help much in a heavy fog or mist. In fact they make it worse. And like making all that noise, wouldn’t the lights just attract the bugs? We already know that’s what attracted them to the windows of the market.
*. These are all relatively minor points, but the way they pile up just within one scene is disturbing. By the time the group drove away I was left shaking my head.
*. Then there is the matter of the ending. Unlike in the novella, David and his gang don’t just drive off into the mist. For some reason Darabont thought such an open ending was a non-starter, though it seemed to work for Hitchcock in The Birds. So he came up with something a little more final.
*. After mentioning Hitch in this context, I’ll drop in this passage from the end of King’s novella, where the narrator reflects on the inconclusiveness of his story: “It is, I suppose, what my father always called ‘an Alfred Hitchcock ending,’ by which he meant a conclusion in ambiguity that allowed the reader or viewer to make up his own mind about how things ended. My father had nothing but contempt for such stories, saying they were ‘cheap shots.'” No wonder King was so impressed with what Darabont did.
*. I won’t give the ending away, but I will say that I don’t like it. I don’t even care much for the music (a piece by Dead Can Dance), not because I don’t like the music but because it doesn’t seem to fit the atmosphere. Darabont thought it a fitting “requiem for the human race,” but it just sounds off to me. It also has the unfortunate effect of making the proceedings feel even more solemn and portentous than they already are.
*. More to the point, I couldn’t really buy the group’s final decision. They weren’t really in extremis at that point. Hell, they’d already been through worse. So it didn’t seem like something they had to do, at least right away. Of course it’s later revealed to have been a mistake, but the problem is that it seemed like a mistake to me at the time.
*. In sum, it strikes me as a good little ’80s horror flick that is uncomfortable in the twenty-first century. It’s a Lovecraft set-up (I assume that’s Cthulhu himself plodding off through the mist at the end), married to all of King’s usual thematic touchstones (family and community threatened with breakdown), molded on to a Romero plot. The thing is, by 2007 we’d already seen all of this and seen it done better. Meanwhile, the flaws (especially the crude characterization and ugly CGI) loom even larger than they would have thirty years ago.
*. The moral of the story, that (in Darabont’s words) “the monsters inside the market are worse than the monsters outside the market,” is a simple one. Presumably it’s the same thing that attracted Darabont to The Walking Dead, where the same could be said of the survivors and the zombies. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being reminded of this — we have met the enemy and he is us — but The Mist is in no rush to make the point and let us go.