After mining the soft-and-fuzzy (and yet still kinda grisly) end of Stephen King's literary catalog with The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, writer-director Frank Darabont may seem like an unlikely choice for tackling one of King's shorter, grimmer horror tales. After turning high-end King into Oscar statues and nominations, why go slumming in the shabbier-seeming sections of King's catalog? Darabont's proven he can warm our hearts with King's stories, but does he have what it takes to chill our blood with one of the author's less high-minded efforts?

The Mist answers that question with a firm "Yes," although you'll be hard-pressed to hear it over the shrieks and shouts coming from the screen and the audience. Darabont's made what can best be called a grade-A B-movie, full of jolts and jumps and classic monster-movie tricks played out with old-school showmanship and thoroughly modern special effects. The plot is vintage King, placing ordinary people in an extraordinary circumstance and watching to see who dies and who doesn't, who discovers hidden strength and who displays hidden madness. And no, The Mist is nothing new -- but it's superbly executed, and far smarter than it had to be. Apparently, Darabont read The Mist when it was published in 1980 and longed to make a film from it; instead, his debut was Shawshank, with The Mist in development limbo for years. The horror fan in me thinks it was more than worth the wait.

In a small coastal town, artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) huddles in the basement with his wife Stephanie (Kelly Collins Lintz) and son Billy (Nathan Gamble) as a storm rages. The next morning, with the power out and downed trees everywhere, David takes Billy into town to get some food, some hardware to fix up damage to the house; it looks like the storm has passed, except for the weirdly dense mist rolling towards town. ... But, as the mist rolls towards the store, a man races in -- bloody and frightened. "Something in the mist! ... Shut the doors!" He claims something in the mist "took" one of his friends. It sounds insane. It is insane. But it isn't wrong. ...
And, in classic King style, while the creatures who may be outside the supermarket are scary, so are some of the people inside. There's the take-charge lawyer from New York (Andre Braugher) who insists that they have to go find help, that all this monster talk is just crazy ... even with David, having had a brush with something that tried to barge into the store, desperate to convince him otherwise. There's also the local crazy town busybody Ms. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who starts invoking selected passages from the Old and New Testaments as things get worse and suggesting radical measures to hold off the end times brought down by God's wrath at modern man's ways: "Walking on the moon! Splitting his atom! Stem cells and abortions!" David's in a fragile shelter, and there's as much pressure from within as from without.

The other store customers and staff are made up of a great team of character actors, all of who are as welcome as old friends. William Sadler is a blue-collar townie; Jeffery De Munn is the man who warns the store; Chris Owen a foolhardy bag boy; Frances Sternhagen a steely schoolteacher. You don't know these actors by name, but trust me: you know them, and each perfectly hits the right tone for this kind of material. Toby Jones, last seen as Truman Capote in Infamous, delivers ace supporting work as Ollie the assistant manager, who rises to the occasion with tenacity and courage. In the lead role, Jane is quite good -- warm and human and terrified as things go wrong, desperate to protect his son at all costs.

But material like this isn't an actor's showcase; it stands, or falls, solely on the basis of the talents of the director and writer. Darabont not only adapts King's story, but he in many ways improves it, including creating a handful of bleak, haunting final scenes not found in the 1980 novella. And Darabont's direction is perfectly tuned, as well -- the scenes of keening terror inside the store often have a creepy-close quality thanks to the choice to use a hand-held camera. (Darabont wound up hiring some of the crew from FX's The Shield for the film, and their run-and-gun, move-and-shoot aesthetic is a great fit for the material.) And while Darabont has a budget for superb effects when the monsters come out, with effects wizard Gregory Nicotero doing his usual high-grade dark magic, he also has the restraint to know that less is more -- and that half-seen, mist-shrouded monsters, filled in by the mind's eye, are much more frightening than a good, long, well-lit look at every angle and oozing pore of a creature that only serves to prove where the budget went. Darabont even finds fear in nothing more -- and nothing less -- than the high, crazed angle of a piece of rope as it's pulled up towards something inconceivable hidden in the shroud of the mist.

And, really, Harden's the scariest thing in the film -- unhinged, unstoppable, spouting a great mix of Biblical verse and all-American conspiracy theory. (Some commentators are objecting to The Mist, claiming that it's anti-Christian. But really, it's just anti-crazy.) And Darabont also knows that over-explanation kills horror films dead in the water, so he goes light on "Why?", focusing instead on what's next and, bluntly, who's next; a lot of people get snuffed in The Mist, and the grip of the tension never lets up. Darabont wears his influences fairly obviously; you can tell early on he likes George A. Romero's work, but there are other influences as well, from the suburban paranoia of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone to the pressure-cooker tension of John Carpenter's The Thing (which gets a nod early on in David's studio with a sight gag that'll make true-blue horror-fans smile). And, in a welcome touch, The Mist is also surprisingly retro in that it focuses more on people being attacked by monsters than on people being attacked by other people; in a horror landscape dominated by Saw-style sadists and Hostel-style hostility, spider-things the size of ponies that spit acid, burning webstuff at people seem somehow more than a little quaint -- and, frankly, more than a little welcome.

Many viewers and reviewers will try to find deeper meaning in The Mist -- the initial mistfall's chaos evoking the morning of 9-11, the subsequent decision to hole up in the store evoking Katrina evacuees, the conflict between Jane and Harden emblematic of some large-scale conflict in the American psyche played out in miniature. But to paraphrase Dr. Freud -- or maybe Dr. Frankenstein -- sometimes a monster is just a monster. King's story dates back to 1980, first year of the Reagan presidency, like Loverboy's first record and Rubik's cube; it's held up a lot better, though, especially after Darabont's polish and presentation. Both King and Darabont know that sometimes a monster's just a monster; what they also know, and prove with The Mist, is that in the hands of talented people behind and in front of the camera, sometimes 'just' a monster is more than enough.
CATEGORIES Reviews, Cinematical