Frank Darabont's nasty horror movie THE MIST (***) is about as good as a low-budget, B-movie of this sort can get. Assemble a nice ensemble of character actors, stage the action in one location (for the most part), and keep the action moving. Clearly working on a limited budget as some of the early special effects sequences are a bit hokey, Darabont is just as interested in character and emotion than he is with monsters or gore. Don't get me wrong -- if gore and monsters are what you want from a movie like THE MIST, you won't be disappointed. You'll get a severed body, some nasty death sequences, and a general air of menace. But what was most interesting about THE MIST was that it worked just as well as a character study (however primitive that study may be) as it did as a straight-ahead horror picture. Darabont, who's last film was the dreadful Capra-esque wannabe THE MAJESTIC with a woefully miscast Jim Carrey, rebounds big time here. He did a stint as a guest director on THE SHIELD last season, and recruited that show's brilliant cameraman Ronn Schmidt to shoot THE MIST with his customary hand-held camera and constant zooming techniques. And while not on the same level as his two previous directorial efforts (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE GREEN MILE), THE MIST shows Darabont in fine control of yet another Stephen King adaptation and proves that he can display a serious cinematic mean streak.
The set-up is simple. A group of townspeople living in Maine become trapped in their local grocery store after a strange mist forms over their lake town and engulfs the surrounding area. A top-secret military base hidden in the mountains above the town might have something to do with the reports of strange "things" inside of the mist, which seem to be attacking people. Movie poster artist David Drayton (a somber Thomas Jane) is trapped in the store with his 10 year old son Billy (Nathan Gamble). Also inside the store is a bible-spouting Jesus freak named Mrs. Carmody (a hysterical Marcia Gay Harden), David's irritable next-door neighbor Brent (Andre Braugher), a local drunkard low-life (William Sanderson), a pretty blond teacher (Laurie Holden), and a seemingly timid grocery bagger named Ollie (Toby Jones). A variety of other shoppers populate the store but it's this group that THE MIST primarily focuses on. After one of the store's workers is attached by a largely unseen tentacled creature, the people in the store all start coming to grips with the fact that something dangerous is outside the store, waiting to pick them off one by one. Tensions flare inside the store, hasty decisions are made, people get into bloody fights with one another, and a few attempts at escape are tried. Darabont focuses on the animalistic side of human nature that emerges in times of great chaos; I guess one could claim that THE MIST is an allegory of 9/11 and our current climate of terrorism. All of this leads to a shockingly nihilistic ending that is probably one of the ballsiest finales to a horror movie in recent memory. Very dark and brutal, Darabont sheds any of the sentimentality that might have carried over from THE MAJESTIC; this is a horror thriller with ice-water running through its veins.
All of the performances are good, with Jane giving a solid performance as the leader of the group. Harden's character becomes an annoyance by design but it reminds you of how good of an actress she can be. And while Braugher doesn't have that much to do, he reminds you how nice it is to see him on screen. The rest of the acting is solid if unspectacular. And while the film is maybe 20 minutes too long (this should have been a tight 95 minute movie rather than the slightly draggy 2 hour film that it is) and has some odd musical choices towards the end after eschewing music for the first hour and a half, THE MIST is very effective as a creature feature and psychological freak out. The audience does get a potential explanation as to why the mist has appeared and why there are nasty bugs and killer monsters on the loose, but that's not what the film is about. It's more about the scared group of people stuck in the store than it is about the monsters lurking outside. Darabont is a smart guy and a smart filmmaker and he must have been attracted to the story of THE MIST as a way of showing how regular people deal with a set of gruesome, crazy circumstances. While never really scary, THE MIST is suitably strange and ventures into the surreal in the last few scenes. It's some good, bloody fun.