Judge Gordon Sullivan wants to know if the Haze Code applies to a film about mist.
Our review of The Mist (Blu-Ray), published September 8th, 2008, is also available.
Fear Changes Everything
I'll let you in on a little secret: my gig here at Verdict is really a sideline until some talented executive recognizes my potential as a "redlighter." See, Hollywood is filled with people who give the go-ahead to projects, "greenlighting" them as they say in the business. I want my entire job to be saying "No, that's a stupid idea" to people who make decisions about how to market movies. Case in point: The person who sold as The Mist as a horror film (which is what the trailers would suggest) should have been told, "No, that's stupid." If you go into The Mist looking for the thrills and chills promised by the trailer and the creepy premise, you'll likely be disappointed. If you go in expecting a fascinating but flawed drama about people under pressure, you'll likely come away more satisfied.
Facts of the Case
The day after a huge storm, a mysterious mist rolls over the lake into a tiny Maine town. After the storm, resident David Drayton (Thomas Jane, The Punisher) goes to the local grocery store to stock up, as do a number of other townsfolk. As the mist begins to envelope the town, a man runs into the store claiming that there's something in the mist. Those trapped in the store must deal with the creatures in the mist, as well as the horrors within, represented by Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock).
Another year, and another cinematic adaptation of that literary stalwart Stephen King. The Mist is the third adaptation from director Frank Darabont, who previously brought us the highly regarded Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (This track record should also be your first clue that horror wasn't first on his list of priorities for The Mist). Except for the ending, the adaptation is very straightforward, following the novella point for point. Darabont applies some cosmetic changes to some characters and motivations, but much of the dialogue is King's. As with the novella, the film focuses mainly on the drama between the people trapped in the store, not on the horrors that lurk outside. From these scenes come most of the film's successes.
King's greatest strengths as a writer are characters and atmosphere, and Darabont does an excellent job translating those to the screen. The atmosphere of the grocery store is thick and claustrophobic. The layout is clear, and despite the chaos that occasionally erupts in the store I was never unsure who was doing what and where. The characters are all sketched clearly from the beginning, and despite the crazy situation, no one does anything that doesn't show clear motivation.
The two best characters (in terms of both acting and conception) are Ollie Weeks and Mrs. Carmody. Toby Jones doesn't look like the typical leading man, which makes it nice when his Ollie Weeks becomes an unlikely hero throughout the story. He gives the impression of a steel backbone underneath the apparently soft exterior he exudes as a grocery store worker. He's also very likable, and I suspect that the audience has an easier time identifying with him than Thomas Jane's David Drayton. Marcia Gay Harden gives a wonderfully mean performance as Mrs. Carmody. Despite her biblical quotations, she's a nasty hypocrite who uses the horrors outside to gain sympathizers and converts. This is the kind of performance that we expect in Oscar-winning dramas, not monster movies.
Often, one of Stephen King's weaknesses as a writer is endings. Ironically, I really enjoyed the ending to the novella, but Frank Darabont gives us a new, more cinematic ending. I won't give anything away, but holy %#&* is it good. I admire any film (especially one coming from a director with such mainstream credentials as Darabont) that's not afraid to commit to an ending likely to upset as many people as it delights. I also admire that the film goes for the gusto in presenting a demented religious figure as a threat. I've nothing against religion, but crazy is crazy. Too many movies write off those kinds of figures as harmless, but both the novella and film versions of The Mist show Mrs. Carmody as a credible villain.
Although there is much to love about The Mist, it's not all perfect. I found Thomas Jane's acting to be inconsistent throughout the film, sometimes strikingly emotional and others simply wooden. I also found the monsters distractingly fake. I know this is a low-budget film (by Hollywood standards), but many of the monsters look awful. It really took me out of the film. I would have preferred if most of the shots of the monsters had been implied instead of shown. These aspects don't ruin the movie, but they made it hard for me to fully immerse myself in the tense world that Frank Darabont has tried to create.
All of the above comments were written before I saw the included "Director's Vision" of the film. This version is the exact same film released theatrically, but it's been completely desaturated so it plays in black-and-white. I absolutely loved the film this time through. I don't know if that's because it was better on the second viewing or if the change in color is that striking. What I can say is that the black and white de-emphasizes all the things I had a problem with in the theatrical version. The monsters look slightly less hokey in this version, making it easier to fall into the film's world. Even Thomas Jane's acting benefits from the extra gravitas created by the lack of color. Black-and-white also adds a number of resonances to the film. Except for the use of a cell phone at one point in the film, the entire movie has a very timeless quality which is reinforced by the photography. Also, I know Stephen King is a fan of the 1950s monster movie era, and the desaturated look certainly calls to mind classic films like The Blob. I really think the director's vision takes the film from a nice Stephen King adaptation to a classic in the same league as The Shawshank Redemption. I'll probably catch a lot of flak for that last statement, but the film grabbed me (pun intended) that much.
Now that I've praised the film, I can easily praise its presentation. The film did all right at the box office, but I suspect it was Darabont's credibility that earned the film a two-disc release. Both versions of the film look very good. I detected a little more grain in the director's version, but it added to the overall feel of the film. The audio is great as well. The soundtrack sweeps the spectrum, from the buzzing of strange wings to the eldritch booming of large creatures, and all are reproduced effectively.
The DVD earns its "Collector's Edition" moniker. Besides the wonderful inclusion of Darabont's version of the film, we get a commentary from him on the theatrical version. He talks a mile a minute and covers everything from actors to visual effects, telling production stories and giving insight into his ideas on the film. It's a commentary I have no problem recommending. He also comments on the some deleted scenes. They're interesting, but would have slowed the film down. We hear from Darabont again as he introduces his version of the film. Also included are a number of making-of featurettes that cover most aspects of the production, focusing especially on the FX. There's some obvious love for both the film and the genre.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've encountered some people who didn't like the acting in The Mist, and I can see their point. If you're looking for horror acting and you get drama acting, it can be jarring. Also, if you're expecting a traditional horror movie, you're likely going to be disappointed. This is much more a pressure-cooker drama with some horror elements than it is a full-on creaturefest.
Frank Darabont scores again with another adaptation from Stephen King. Although I have reservations about the theatrical cut, the black-and-white director's vision is an amazing piece of filmmaking, especially considering its Hollywood origins. It may not be for everybody, but The Mist succeeds on its own terms.
The Mist is found not guilty. The court hopes Mr. Darabont tackles more Stephen King stories in the future.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
• Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Frank Darabont
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