If the apocalypse arrived without warning, would you want it to catch you in the supermarket? Sure, the place has plenty of food and supplies. But it’s also got plenty of other people — and, as Sartre pointed out, sometimes forced confinement with your friends and neighbors can be just as hellish as anything in the Book of Revelation.
That’s the central conceit of The Mist, based on a 1980 novella by Stephen King. Like John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), it takes place in a small coastal town — here, a Maine lakeside burg — and relies on the basic principle that what you can’t quite see will really scare you. Both films feature monsters that look pretty lame when the weather clears, but there the similarities end. While Carpenter told a creaky ghost story of sin and vengeance, King and Frank Darabont — who adapted his text and directed — are more interesting in the time-honored “base under siege” scenario.
When the mist rolls into town, graphic artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy are picking up supplies at the local Food House. This being a King story, each and every person in the store is a small-town archetype: the nebbishy but valiant manager, the crusty old school teacher, the sweet-young-thing check-out girl, the biker dude, and the babelicious woman who’s New in Town. It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting, updated with cussing.
After a blood-spattered man dashes in crying, “There’s something in the mist!” the shoppers decide to stay put. A young checker who ventures out meets an ugly end, convincing everyone of the danger except Andre Braugher, as a high-powered New York lawyer, who somehow gets it in his head that the whole town is pranking him. Summer people are weird like that.
From there, some fairly predictable havoc ensues. Some of it is caused by cleverly designed, clumsily animated critters — the CGI on the giant tentacles is especially bad. But the lion’s share of the blame goes to Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a tight-lipped religious fanatic who gets it in her head that the End Times have arrived. Squeaky voiced and progressively more insane, her dark hair flying as she gathers followers, Harden has a great time with this role. Sure, she’s over the top — but what successful tent preacher isn’t?
Unfortunately, the lead roles aren’t as well cast. Playing a hero who’s an obvious stand-in for King — David designs movie one-sheets, and a townie sneers at his “New York and Hollywood connections” — Jane doesn’t bring anything interesting to his role. As the babe, Laurie Holden is as stiff as she was on late seasons of “The X-Files.” This is one of those movies where the fine supporting players carry the show — Harden, Braugher, Frances Sternhagen as the tough old bird, even Nathan Gamble as the terrified little boy. They’re stuck with a script that retains all King’s thoughtful humanism — but also his cheesiness. When a scared mother refers to her son as “Little Victor” and begs the men in the store to “see a lady home” so she can check on her kids, the cutesy dialogue pulls viewers right out of what should be a chilling moment. Happily, nothing can dilute the film’s ending — a deviation from the story, and possibly the most disturbing finale ever bestowed on a horror flick aimed at the multiplex, not the grindhouse.
The Mist is the sort of movie that keeps horror fans up late when they run into it on TBS, but it feels small for the big screen. At one point, a character announces portentously, “When people are scared, you can make them do anything.” That motto may be the secret of Stephen King’s world domination — or George Bush’s, for that matter. As a theme, it deserves a less vaporous treatment than it gets here.