Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Expiation!


Of all the meat-and-potatoes journeymen Stephen King prefers to adapt his work, Frank Darabont is the best. His previous King adaptations were smart, well-crafted crowd-pleasers, even if they suffered from the sort of bloat (particularly with The Green Mile) that came with Darabont's religious fidelity to King's books. But The Mist owes less to those films than to the Darabont-scripted A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and The Blob, B-movies that never pandered to their core audience even as they delivered the required buckets of viscera. King's novella was originally written in the 80's, and Darabont's film (CGI aside) could have been released in that heyday of Fangoria-endorsed creature features. The Mist is brooding and merciless, and, for all its very contemporary thematic concerns, works best as a proudly old-fashioned "Boo!" movie.


A poster of The Thing visible early on in the studio of poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) indicates the film's biggest influence. Like Carpenter's film, The Mist is a Hawksian narrative that traps a cross-section of residents of a small Maine town in a grocery store enveloped in the titular weather activity. Darabont succeeds in mounting tension both with the threat of mysterious, Lovecraftian creatures hiding in the mist, waiting to attack and in the conflicts between people in the store over real and perceived class and cultural differences. This is familiar genre territory, but the cast, largely made up of veteran character actors, succeeds in creating a fresh variation on old themes. A particular standout is Marcia Gay Harden as Mrs. Carmody, a zealous evangelical Christian who uses the crowd's fear to preach her apocalyptic message. King is fond of these broad portraits of the devout, and a less skilled actor could have easily reduced Mrs. Carmody to a hammy, one-dimensional caricature. But Harden delivers her doomsaying prophecies with quiet certainty, making the characte more human, more recognizable and more disturbing (especially if you've met women like her).

The emphasis of human conflict at the forefront of the drama gives The Mist an unusual seriousness, and it's hard not to draw analogies between the faith vs. reason conflict in the film and our own cultural divide. If there's a flaw with the film, it's that Darabont stacks the deck too far in favor of the lefties - a moment of action by a pragmatic grocer (Toby Jones) late in the story invited applause from the audience that felt uncomfortably close to the bloodlust experienced by the characters. Luckily, the ending (taken straight from the Twilight Zone playbook) makes this more complicated, forcing us to question our own reponse to the horror the sudden, violent paradigm shift we're a part of. The final moments play like the dark side of The Shawshank Redemption, depicting loss of hope as the ultimate, irreversible horror. It's heavyhanded stuff, but it works.

If I'm forgiving of The Mist's flaws, it's because I can't remember feeling so pleasurably creeped out by a movie in a long time. King's greatest strength has always been his unsparing, treament of the gory details (matched only by Lovecraft), and one of the biggest failures of most films adapted from his work is that they keep the genre conventions but never get sick enough. The monsters here (designed by Berni Wrightson!) live up to the book - they're truly otherworldly beasts that have seemingly emerged straight from the characters' (and my) nightmares. In other words, they're mean, nasty and disgusting, just the way monsters should be. King once wrote that "If I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud." Darabont goes for the gross-out, and he should be proud.

4 comments:

Jenny said...

What about The Shining though? I'd say it's still a pretty good film

Bemis said...

The Shining is one of my very favorite movies, but King's not a fan - he found the casting and changes to the book cold and beside the point. Generally, King seems to prefer directors who stay out of the way, and as far as those go, Darabont's the best (or at least extremely preferable to Mick Garris).

Jenny said...

Ah, okay: I apologize for taking your words outta context

Bemis said...

No worries - I thought about clarifying it further in the opening, but was afraid of overdoing a pet topic of mine.