Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Lost in the Supermarket: The Mist at 15

My first viewing of The Mist was about as perfect as it gets. I caught it solo on an opening day matinee on November 21st, 2007, in a nearly empty theater (an early indication, I guess, that the box office wasn't going to be stellar). After the end credits rolled on its gut punch of an ending, I staggered out of the darkness of the theater only to feel like I had walked into the movie itself as the weather in Western Massachusetts that day had brought a thick mist to the area like I'd never seen. 

Fittingly, I had to stop off to pick up some groceries and the mist was so heavy that I could barely make out the shape of the supermarket as I walked towards it through the parking lot. It was such a perfect, impossible to replicate, experience that I left it as my sole encounter with The Mist. I was comfortable in believing it to be one of the finest horror movies of the current century, one of the best Stephen King adaptations and just an all-around masterpiece. But with it celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this month, I felt like I was due a revisit. I steeled myself for a bleak couple of hours of monsters n' misery only to be surprised at how much I didn't think it had quite held up.  

On the plus side, there's an eerily prescient quality to The Mist. Writer/director Frank Darabont seems to have had a crystal ball into our current MAGA era with the hysteria and zealotry of Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Hardy) being all too plausible now in a world where you have people like MTG and Lauren Boebert in Congress. If you happened to be in a grocery store when, say, a lunatic like Kari Lake was shopping and you suddenly had to contend with otherwordly creatures, things would go from bad to worse about as quickly as they do here. 

So, high marks to Darabont for having the correct instincts in regards to how crazy shit could get. Mrs. Carmody's fanaticism was an aspect of The Mist that was faulted in 2007 for being too unbelievable, as some critics just couldn't buy the idea that ordinary, everyday people would be as quick to lose it as they do here, but time has proven Darabont right. If anything, reality has managed to eclipse The Mist in regards to its cynical view of human nature. Turns out people are even worse than Darabont imagined - and they need far less provocation than the characters in The Mist have to be that way. You only have to look at the events of January 6th to understand that you don't have to have other dimensional creatures flooding through a rip in our reality for people to start tearing each other apart. They're more than ready to do it over truly stupid shit. So, in that regard, The Mist was ahead of the curve.

That aside, there's a stultifying portentousness that hangs over The Mist. At 126 minutes, this doesn't move like it should. King's novella was cut from the cloth of '50s creature features but Darabont is trying to make it into Oscar material. When Melissa McBride as the unnamed woman who is determined to go out into the mist to return home to her children, irregardless of the danger, pleads for at least one person in the market to walk her home only to be met with downward glances and sorry excuses says to all of them, "I hope you rot in hell," the movie is essentially already over in that moment. Everyone in that grocery store has made a choice and they have damned themselves with their cowardice - even protagonist Thomas Jane as movie poster artist David Drayton, who can only offer up a mealy mouthed "I got my own kid to worry about." - and the remainder of the movie is about watching their collective comeuppances unfold. The problem is that it takes The Mist too long to get to an already forgone conclusion. There's no redemption on the table for any of these people so the protracted conflict between the warring factions in the grocery store is just Darabont slow walking this story to its inevitable conclusion. That's not something that's obvious on first viewing but on the second, knowing the outcome, the power struggle between the religious wackadoodles and the well meaning but ineffectual pragmatists now comes across as tedious and it goes on forever. 

This is a movie that should have clocked in at a brisk 80 to 90 minutes, not stretch past the two hour mark. And Darabont didn't have to abandon any social commentary in order to craft a trimmer narrative. If Rod Serling could make incisive observations about human nature - often in stories concerning characters under siege - within the fleet running time of a Twilight Zone episode, Darabont should have had no trouble doing so within the normal length of an exploitation movie. 

If only Darabont had made The Mist with director Chuck Russell, his collaborator on two of the greatest genre confections of '80s cinema, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and the '88 remake of The Blob. Together the two of them could have crafted a truly remarkable creature feature that still could have made some trenchant social commentary while also delivering gooey, tentacle slinging, B-movie thrills. The Mist needed to operate in a whole other gear than Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile but it doesn't. With critical acclaim filling his sails, the solo Darabont of the '00s puts too much weight on this material. 

When Toby Jones, as grocery store assistant manager Ollie Weeks, says "As a species, we're fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?" it feels too much like a Hollywood screenwriter trying to impress rather than a middle aged supermarket worker who's out to survive. There's a polemic quality to the dialogue here that only adds to the movie's ennui. It's a lot of stiff sounding philosophising that lacks the plain spoken poetry of Tom in Night of the Living Dead telling Judy that the situation they're in isn't "like a wind passing through."

From the perspective of 2022, there's another issue with The Mist that came as a real surprise to me this time around. In 2007, it didn't make any special impression on me that Drayton's neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) decides to gather several like minded folk and leave the supermarket at an early point never to be seen again but now it immediately calls attention to itself as a misstep. 

Norton is the only prominent minority character in the film (which is a problem in itself), one that we develop an attachment to and an interest in right away, but he exits the film so early and there's no satisfying resolution to his storyline. He and his group leave, they vanish into the mist, and while we assume that he and his party don't make it, we never know for sure and so this character just disappears. That would not fly today. Aside from giving such short shift to the film's one minority character, what a weird, inexplicable waste of Andre Braugher it is. If you've got this guy in your movie, don't have his part just come to nothing. 

Similarly, the character of Hattie played by Susan Watkins seems meant to be perceived as gay but, as with Brent Norton, Darabont sweeps her off the stage quickly. Back in 2007, to only have a single prominent minority character and one potentially LGBTQ character and give them both such limited screen time didn't seem all that egregious but in 2022 it absolutely does. This speaks less to any errors on Darabont's part, though, as much as it speaks to how much the world has changed in a relatively short time where things that not so long ago seemed innocuous now stick out as wrong - or at least as beings things that would most certainly be handled far differently today.   

As far as the controversial ending goes, it only works for me if I interpret it as a validation of Mrs. Carmody's call for a "blood sacrifice." As this would represent the ultimate cynical move on Darabont's part, I really hope that's how he intended it. I love the very twisted notion that the world would never have returned to normal had Drayton not pulled the trigger on his son. Just as some can look at Night of the Living Dead from the perspective of "Cooper was right" (he's a cowardly douchebag but still strategically correct), one can choose to look at The Mist from the even grimmer standpoint of "Mrs. Carmody was right." 

Personally, I've never bought into the believability of David's decision. Darabont does his best to sell us on it and it might be convincing to some but not for me. Shit was bad but it wasn't quite blow your kid away bad yet. But if it's supposed to reveal that Mrs. Carmody was right all along, then that's fucked up enough for me to get on board with it. Also, I've always wondered, what order does David do the shooting? He's got to kill his son first, right? Anything else would be beyond sadistic. My God, if he saved his son for last, how sick is that? 

Anyhow, it's quite an ending any way you slice it. And the button that Darabont puts on it with McBride and her children included among the survivors is absolutely brilliant. A lot of The Mist comes up short for me now but not that. Again, though, it underlines the fact that the movie was over once she left the grocery store and it takes way too long to arrive at this ironic sting in the tail. 

I can't rule out the possibility that if I re-watch The Mist again down the line, that I might have another change of heart about it and go back to admiring it as a masterpiece but for now, when it comes to King adaptations about people under siege, I'm gonna have to say Maximum Overdrive > The Mist. But, you know, maybe there's nothing wrong with The Mist that an AC/DC soundtrack couldn't fix. 

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