First off, understand that this is a movie both written and directed by Frank Darabont. Frank has brought us wonderful Stephen King movies before including THE GREEN MILE.
1. Because Frank is writer, director, and producer of Stephen King's THE MIST.
And while we're on the subject of FRANKENSTEIN, I know that all Horror fans have heard of it, a fraction of you know that the name belongs to the doctor and not the creature, a smaller fraction have seen a movie (purportedly) based on the book, and a very small fraction of you, one might even say a minority of you, have actually read Mary Shelley's immortal classic.
Despite the many interpretations of Mary's book, the story is about a scientist whose rational mind was more developed that his emotional maturity. Mary didn't fear science or scientists. She wrote her novel, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS (aka FRANKENSTEIN) with the help of none other than Charles Darwin (how's THAT for a Science Consultant?), a man who was reviled in his time for not adhering to Scientific Consensus regarding the origins of humanity.
This is not a digression.
In the 1940s and 1950s, scientists were the heroes in SciFi Horror Thrillers. Not just in Hollywood but around the world. It was science that saved us from GODZILLA. Science that saved us from a multitude of various evil aliens like THE BLOB, and so on. Sometimes there were scientists who didn't understand the greater implications of what they were doing, movies like FORBIDDEN PLANET for example.
Then, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, movies in America showed scientists going from heroes to befuddled numbskulls. What was really needed in a pinch was a Go To guy who would shoot first with one hand and pull the women and scientists out of the way of his barrel with the other. Otherwise, the scientists own creations would destroy us all in movies like ON THE BEACH, THEM, OMEGA MAN, COLOSSUS THE FORBIN PROJECT and THE PLANET OF THE APES, all of which echoed the Howard Hawks sentiments from 1951 of the scientist as a narrow-minded effeminate fop in THE THING.
This didn't fly across the pond where scientists remained heroes in movies like the QUATERMASS and DOCTOR WHO movie series. When the 1970s came around, the reinterpretation of the Mary Shelley scientist was not merely a mad doctor, but one who was in cahoots with the evil U.S. government. Or possibly with an evil U.S. government and an evil U.S. corporation to boot! Hollywood was really in the throes of supernatural Horror throughout the seventies and paid little mind to science fiction.
What Science Fiction Horror Thriller was made in the 1970s, portrayed the scientist as evil and threatening, and owned by the evil U.S. government, usually controlling an evil military with mindless soldiers, or an Evil Corporation in movies like SILENT RUNNING, SOYLENT GREEN, THE STEPFORD WIVES, and ALIEN. By the 1980s the template of Evil Scientist, U.S. Evil Government, Evil Military, and Evil U.S. Corporation was getting old for all but the cheapo movies like PARASITE, and worse. And out of those cheapies, a few emerged as great because they played with the hoary old 1960s trope of well-meaning but befuddled scientist in movies like David Cronenberg's RABID, SCANNERS, and THE FLY. Or Dr. Emmet Brown in Back To The Future.
They weren't heroes, but they weren't evil.
Of course, the Evil U.S. Corporation and the Evil U.S. Government was still as evil as ever in films like THE DEAD ZONE, PREDATOR, ROBOCOP, and more. At this stage, Scientists were the unnamed, often silent extras in the movie. They, like soldiers, were the drones following orders, mindless of the consequences.
The majority of movies I've just mentioned are good movies and among my favorites. Even though they were using hack tropes, they focused on just one trope. And let's face it, if you are going to show an overpowering evil, it has to be a well funded evil (excepting alien invasion and undiscovered varmint). The wealthiest most powerful government in the world, or the largest most influential corporation in the world - turned evil - seems a lot more threatening than some tin-pot dictator from a banana republic or the local owner of a tub and tile store.
By the 1990s all three tropes were so worn out that they just became mindless cartoonish stories like TOTAL RECALL, THE LAWNMOWER MAN, and the sequel sewage like the ALIEN and ROBOCOP dregs. Lloyd Kaufman was making fun of them (TOXIC AVENGER, SURF NAZIS MUST DIE!). Fred Olen Ray was making fun of them (every Fred Olen Ray SciFi movie), and they were a staple of nearly every single made-for-Scifi-channel Dean Cain or Lorenzo Lamas movie shown after midnight (BOA, DARK DESCENT, DEEP EVIL).^
Meanwhile in movies from Steven Spielberg's JAWS to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to JURASSIC PARK, as well as THE GHOSTBUSTERS, scientists, however personally flawed, were becoming heroes again.
Notice that the Scientist as Hero began with only two directors out of hundreds?
Yet these mere drops in the river dove deep. First with minor league directors like John Carpenter (THE THING, THEY LIVE, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), whose movies have a delayed fuse of enormous cinematic influence. These three were a bulwark against the anti-science wave.
Yet their efforts took. By the 1990s, from movies like OUTBREAK and JURASSIC PARK to TV Shows like THE X-FILES to the many Star Trek expansions, to CSI everything, scientists were no longer villainous or drones of villains by default and were even heroes.
So! Here we are in 2007! Frank Darabont rewrites Stephen King's THE MIST - one of the very few times that Stevie was able to get the science not only right, but entertaining as well. I'm a big King fan, but only for his supernatural Horror. Whenever he attempts Science Fiction, he stinks on ice. Remember THE STAND? Evil U.S. Government AND Evil Scientists! Bro-ther!
THE MIST starts off with a man in a room painting a movie poster. The man is David Drayton (Thomas Jane: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, DEEP BLUE SEA, DREAMCATCHER, TRIPPER). He has a few of his paintings on the wall in front of him, including a painting/poster for John Carpenter's THE THING*. The camera lingers on that image just long enough to make me think that ol' Frank may be trying to reach that kind of height.
Wow! Excellent! I'm all for it if he can do it.
Soon a powerful storm comes up and David, his wife Stephanie (Kelly Collins Lintz: SURFACE [TV]) and his son Billy (Nathon Gamble) go deep into the house to escape it. After the storm has passed, all three survey the damage to their home. The two biggest being their own tree which has crashed through David's studio, ruining his painting, and the other being his neighbor's tree, which has fallen, crushing David's boathouse.
David and his neighbor, Brent Norton (Andre Braugher: 'SALEM'S LOT [TV], POSEIDON) have a rough past that went to court where David won. Since then, things have been rather prickly between the two men. In a well played moment of the two awkwardly trying to move forward, Brent finds that his classic Mercedes Benz has been destroyed by the storm, and hearing the sincere sympathy evoked from David, asks for and receives a ride into town to get supplies. What all four people notice however, is the odd mist coming from the mountain and across the lake.
Promising to be right back, David, Billy, and Brent leave while Stephanie stays home. As they drive down the mountain and into town, they're passed by an inordinate number of military vehicles, all making a beeline for the military base up near the top of the mountain.
The three make it to the local supermarket just as the mist arrives behind them. The computers are off in the store and so are the cash registers. Check-out is taking longer because everything is being calculated by battery power but the store manager and owner aren't complaining. Then an old man comes running out of the ever thickening mist. There is blood on his face. He has a frightening and mysterious story. Some thing in the mist grabbed his friend and tore him apart. What makes him credible is that in this small community, everyone knows he's Dan Miller (Jeffrey DeMunn: THE HITCHER , THE BLOB , THE GREEN MILE), and Dan is not the kind of guy to get panicked over nothing.
Everyone looks out the window at the potential danger. The mist is so thick that no one can even see the edge of the parking lot. The store management asks that everyone stay inside for the moment, but one woman can't. She left her children back at the house. She was only going to be gone for a moment. Her oldest is 8. He can't take care of his little brother for long. She doesn't want to go out, and she doesn't want to go out alone. But everyone in the store has family of their own to think about. Reluctantly, the young woman leaves the store, disappears in the mist, and no one hears the sound of her car starting ... ever.
This shakes people up enough where the menfolk feel the need to fight their fear by re-asserting their bravery. The back-up generator in the rear of the store is smoking. There is a lot of work to be done in the store and everyone volunteers where they can.
David goes in the back to the loading dock and shuts off the smoking generator. As he tries to make his way back in the dark, he reaches a relatively well lit area when he sees the locked metal rear delivery door abruptly bend inwards. Something is scratching and making odd noises outside and the metal reinforced door bends inward! This unsettles David and he tries to tell some of the others. The fear factor is growing however and David's kind of talk just makes the other men patronizing at best and threatening at worst.
The bagboy, Norm, (Chris Owen) volunteers to go outside, climb up to the generator vent, and pull out whatever is clogging it. David is strongly against this idea but no one takes him seriously until its too late. Now there are only four of the original five men and to all of their surprise, they can't make anyone else in the store believe them.
Tentacles? You saw tentacles? It's just too ridiculous. They have to practically force a handful of others into the back to prove what they say is true. Before they fought to get the door closed, David was able to use a fireaxe to hack off a piece of tentacle. Yes, I said tentacle. And while the movie is very creepy and suspenseful up to this point, that tentacle was obvious cgi. And by obvious I mean it was AWFUL! I mean DREAMCATCHER cgi bad! But I shook it off and let the movie move me onward.
Despite the fact that more people have seen the tentacle, most of the rest of the folks in the store don't believe it, and the body of people split into two groups. Those who believe that something weird and monstrous is outside in the mist, and those who don't. The ones who don't believe want to leave, though they are somewhat afraid. The ones who believe that something bad is out there want everyone to stay.
At this point, a third faction opens her ugly mouth. This is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden: THE DEAD GIRL, THE INVISIBLE), and she is the town crackpot. She treats everyone in the vilest manner possible, saying the most hateful things she can think of, all in the name of God's love. Sort of a low-rent Jerry Falwell: there's one in every crowd. At first, everyone treats her the way she deserves, but as things get weirder, and far more dangerous, some in the store will come to buy into her craziness.
On the plus side, this movie definitely has its THE THING moments. After the misstep of the bad cgi tentacles, all the other creatures (mostly practical effects or partially hidden by THE FOG) look realistic, deadly, and horrifyingly ugly. Frank Darabont was terrified as a yute by an episode of Outer Limits that featured bugs with human like faces (The Zanti Misfits), and that carries over into the creature designs here.
Yes, Frank came so close. So wonderfully, terrifyingly close to John Carpenter's THE THING (which in my opinion is Science Fiction Horror Thriller perfection).
Then came the hackneyed clichés.
The trouble with worn out clichés is that if they get too old, too used, then they're not only just hack anymore. If they go beyond hack, then they're just pathetic if presented seriously because at that point we've watched years of TV Shows and movies mocking such cliches: they're so worn out they've become comedy. And I'm not talking about just the
!!!UNFAIR RACIAL CLICHE ALERT!!!:
And okay, as I said earlier, a movie can withstand the weight of one really bad, hackneyed trope and still be enjoyable and - hell - even good! Take THE TERMINATOR movies for example! ALIEN and ALIENS for another! But also understand that I'm talking about movies over two decades old.
In addition to the URCA, THE MIST also has the Syfy Channel trope of the Stupid Scientists. We don't see them, but we find out that they did something really stupid - not merely a mistake born out of experiments Gone Mad (took an unexpected turn) - but outright senselessly stupid.
Remember: you get one hack trope.
This unbelievably stupid science thing was in collusion with another overworked cliché that involved the Evil U.S. Government. And of course, the Evil Military was involved with the subset of stupid American soldiers who will blindly follow evil orders like mindless robots.
That's three hackneyed clichés plus. But wait, what about Mrs. Carmody?
I don't think there is a single Horror Thriller fan in America - and over the age of 21 - who hasn't seen the TWILIGHT ZONE episode of The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street. That episode is so popular it even has its own Wikipedia page! Even in King's Lovecraftian novella, there was a lot of The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street running through it, and coincidentally (or not?) the "hero" or at least main protagonist of the story was also named Steve (played by Claude Akins in TZ. Played by King in real life).
What was noticeable in King's story, is too obvious in Darabont's, with some phrases seemingly lifted from TZ. There's a moment when David nearly quotes the alien leader from the TZ episode, in explaining the breakdown of their civilized neighbors and why. In that episode there was also a "Mrs. Carmody type". But even in a twenty-something minute episode, the writer and director were wise not to give her too much time. Not so here.
Mrs. Carmody raves on and on and on and truly, a couple of the characters comment on how she never seems to shut-up.
The movie's characters point out how tiresome the dialog is becoming and how tedious this scene is! Holy Shit!
Yet even with the inordinate amount of attention spent on her as the charmless Mrs. Carmody takes advantage of other people's fear (VERY much like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson attempted but failed to do immediately after the terrorist attack on the U.S., September 11), there is a concurrent massive plot hole. Despite all her time (paragraphs and pages), her character is never developed beyond a single note.
Theirs is a religion of peace.
They are only trying to help as they make fluttery appeals to fear and emotion: What is so wrong about purifying our souls, especially since we're facing our own death?
What is so wrong about purifying our world, especially since we're facing a global holocaust?
For all the time spent on Mrs. Carmody, THE MIST never shows how the Mrs. Carmodys of the world get inside otherwise good people's minds and twist them. Instead, the cut & paste Evil Christian figure template is sledge-hammered home long past the point of Jesus F*cking Christ! I get it already!: to the point that I could hear people in the audience around me stating the obvious "Kill her already!"
Right at that point, somebody in the movie - just in case we still haven't been hammered into unconsciousness by the point - says something to the effect that "Mrs. Carmody is an evil bitch."
And still her fucking character just keeps jabbering on and on in her two dimensional form.
I mean, the movie establishes that this is a small community (and every Stephen King fan knows just WHAT community!) and everyone knows each other which should mean that everyone in town has had Mrs. Carmody's number for quite some time.
In fact, as if to belabor the point, one character even makes expositional reference (to the handful of out-of-towners), that Mrs. Carmody is the well-known nut of the town.
The script, through the dialog of the characters is actually telling us how bad the writing is, and nobody throughout the decision-making studio levels caught this?
So when the whole town knows what kind of vicious nut Mrs. Carmody is, and then just throw their sanity and life experience with her out the window and follow her blindly and murderously, against the people they've come to know and trust, Who They Just Saw Save Their Lives, we require more reason for the switch than just Poof!
"Oh by they way. While you were asleep, Mrs. Carmody whipped half the folk here into a murderous rage."
A murderous rage against the only people that saved everyone's lives?!? These people have no survival instinct during the evolutionary triggered fight or flight moment when survival instinct would come into play?
It comes off this phony because, as amply demonstrated innumerable times throughout history, when a group of people's lives are in immediate danger, everyone pulls together. That's how humans are, that's how we survive. We're social creatures by nature, and we've seen that in every major tragedy that takes place anywhere, regardless of culture. Darabont was obviously trying to make a social statement here, but like Romero's LAND OF THE DEAD, he shows a profound ignorance of societal dynamics and it looks and sounds so forced. Because it is.
Stephen King was also wise enough to only hint that the military was somehow involved in the monstrous terror - or at least - was aware of what was going on. Frank didn't follow that wisdom. For Frank, the military is complicit.
The Evil U.S. Government is represented by the Evil/Dumb U.S. military (as usual) and specifically a handful of young soldiers. They become the stupid bad guys for having joined the military and bringing evil and destruction on the world. These are the same things that Dimension Films wanted in their direct to DVD movie, FEAST. The trailer that featured said tropes went over like a lead balloon and Director John Gulager stuck to the script instead. The fact that such troglodyte tropes were wisely left out, may attribute to the reason why FEAST became so wildly popular that it spawned two sequels, already being filmed.
Though Marcia Gay Harden's talents are terribly wasted, THE MIST is full of great and compelling performances by Thomas Jane, Andre Braugher, Laurie Holden, Tobey Jones, and even the minor role by Nathan Gamble.
What's more, the (later) creatures are truly creepy and scary and there are varmint moments that leave you in awe. Even more than that, Darabont doesn't cave to the cheapo MTV splat-a-minute dross of many current Horror Thriller movies. Instead he does a wonderful job of creating suspense before the attacks and these, combined with the creatures (after the bad cgi tentacles), are all the more effective. It's rare that you get such a cinematic mixed bag of diamonds in crap.
No, the only overwhelming problem here is that Frank felt his audience was so dim that he needlessly stuffed pound after pound of clichés into THE MIST, turning what could have been an intelligent Horror Thriller into one big fat preachy turkey.
Oh, and you know how sometimes when a film is struggling to make a point it doesn't really have; at the moment where the movie should end, it just keeps going and basically gives you two endings? THE MIST gives you four, but I give it two - Shriek Girls that is.
This story deserved far better.
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