Friday 4 April 2008

The Mist

When I was 14 I went through a Stephen King phase. It was all I read. The first one I picked up was Eyes of the Dragon. A strange introduction to the man's oeuvre, considering it's more fantasy than horror. But I was hooked and for the next year or so, I read my way through his catalog. I came across The Mist early in my reading and I liked it very much. At the time, I wasn't too familiar with the idea of an other-worldly horror as it would be years before I finally picked up Lovecraft. Supernatural, sure, but an actual physical horror that was unlike anything in our real world? So although tentacles snaking out of a dense fog was somewhat preposterous, I gave over to the possibility and immersed myself in the The Mist.

When news reached my ears of a movie version of the story, I was excited/curious/skeptical/and hungry all at once. Almost all the action takes place within the confines of a supermarket. The sense of claustrophobia and isolation that pervades the novella, could that transfer to the screen? The answer, it seems, is yes. Rue Morgue claimed The Mist as the best feature film in its year-end review for 2007 (just beating out Planet Terror). Described as being "the thinking man's creature feature", this under-appreciated movie is about a group of people holed up in a grocery store after their small town is drowned in a thick white mist. There are things, unnamed things in the mist that will eat you up so you daren't go outside.

Thomas Jane plays David Drayton, just a regular guy with a regular wife and kid, who lives in a regular small town. Not terribly important to the plot, David is an artist who paints movie posters. However, in the first few moments of the film, the audience is treated to a glimpse of David's work and a foreshadowing of the themes that are to be explored over the next 120 minutes. The artwork on display in David's studio are posters for The Thing (paranoia and isolation), Pan's Labyrinth (subversion and innocence), The Shawshank Redemption (redemption and truth), and The Dark Tower (self-serving motives perhaps? I only read the first book of the series and don't remember much about it except that I didn't like it a whole lot).

A bad storm one night knocks out the power and the phones in Castle Rock, and the following morning a mist rolls down from the mountains. David takes his son, Billy, into to town to stock up on groceries. With them comes their neighbour Brent, a big city lawyer and a bit of a jerk. The supermarket is crowded and the lines are moving slowly as there is no power to run the cash registers, but everyone is on their very best behaviour, brought together through their shared suffering. Then Dan comes running into the store, bleeding from the nose and screaming. He says there are things in the mist that took his friend. All too soon the mist engulfs the store and everyone is trapped inside.

I remember in the story the people in the store are divided into two camps: the believers and what David calls the Flat Earth Society. Frustratingly, I can't remember whether the Flat Earthers are represented by Brent, the disbelieving jerk, or Mrs. Carmody, the local religious fanatic who claims the mist and its monsters were sent by God to punish the wicked. Either way, the power struggle between reason, logic, and religion that underscore the story in the book are what drive the action in the film.

What I'm sure isn't in the novella is the military presence that permeates the movie. Though The Mist is in no way a propagandist film, the filmmakers still felt a need to muse on war. Partway through the movie, in a scene which completely breaks the suspension of disbelief, the situation in Castle Rock is compared to the situation in Iraq. This kind of thing pisses me off; in a film that has nothing to do with Iraq, why do the filmmakers feel it's necessary to bring it up? Is it to make the story more present, to give the audience a frame of reference? But then why, in a fictional movie about fictional events taking place in a fictional town, is such a grounding in reality needed in the first place? The mere mention of the war only lessens the horrors taking place in the world of the film because tentacled man-eating things from Dimension X can't possibly compare to the horrors that await Private Jessup in Iraq.

The ending, too, is different although no less depressing. I'll agree with Dan who suggests ending the movie a minute before the credits roll. I might even go so far as to suggest ending the movie five minutes earlier. In the book David and Billy drive off into the unknown clinging to a faint and dwindling hope that humanity still has a foothold in this world. Though over the course of the film we come to learn what's living in the mist, we still have no idea how much of the world has been swallowed up. Then comes the end, and all the mystery and uncertainty that gave the story its edge is, quite literally, burned away.

But The Mist isn't the kind of movie you watch for its end. Though hardly a character study, it does present a cynical and pessimistic view of humanity. The skepticism I felt when I first heard about the adaptation has now been replaced with a happy acceptance; The Mist is a good movie. But I'm not convinced it's better than Planet Terror.

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