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Reply Hazy, Try Again

November 28th, 2007

Saw The Mist last night. The flick–about townsfolk trapped in a supermarket by a mysterious fog inhabited by Lovecraftian* monsters–had been on my radar for some time. Writer/director Frank Darabont wrote the very effective 1988 remake of The Blob, one of my favorite gross-outs.

(*Lovecraftian = things with tentacles, apparently.)

The Mist is ambitious if flawed, and I give it major props for being a modern horror flick that isn’t about zombies, serial killers or torture. It also has the bleakest ending I’ve seen in a long, long time…and yes, that’s a good thing.

Far too many films cop out at the end, thanks to jittery studios unwilling to risk upsetting their audiences with anything other than a happily ever after, or producers who fall in love with their characters and pull back from giving them due comeuppance. It’s nothing new. The musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors–which is, after all, a Faustian tale about a nebbish who chops up people and feeds them to a hungry plant–lost its moral center when test audiences balked and the producers hastily reshot things so that Seymour and his paramour survived. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which initially ended with the main character running down a highway screaming “You’re next!” tacked on a coda which saw the authorities rushing out to confront the alien pod menace.

That’s why I welcome a movie that isn’t afraid to be unpopular, that remembers that horror isn’t just about severed body parts. In The Mist, the greatest horror is enacted upon its survivor, in a scene which is every bit as wrenching (if not nearly as iconic) as the classic Statue of Liberty bit from Planet of the Apes.

Several of the negative reviews I’ve read of the film decry it for just that reason, while others declare it to be anti-military or even anti-Bush. Never mind that it’s (closely) based on a story written in 1980, and that it makes no mention of current affairs other than an oblique reference to soldiers being shipped out “over there.” Bush defenders don’t like it because it’s a polemic against fearmongering, even though neither the practice itself nor stories in which isolated, fearful humans turn on each other are solely products of the post-9/11 era.

For me, what The Mist is about most of all is hopelessness and how people react to it. A pair of soldiers–the only ones who fully appreciate what the secret experiments at the local military base have unleashed–kill themselves. A holy roller declares herself the vessel of an Old Testament God and rallies others into a murderous mob. And in the one big change from the original novella, the film trades Stephen King’s unresolved ending–the protagonists driving away into the unknown–for one which is both more conclusive and less comforting.

There are a couple of faults. It’s about twenty minutes too long; not bloated, but longer than it needs to be to make its point. I was also a little disappointed in some of the creature designs. Some of the supposedly extra-dimensional monsters look too familiar: oversized bugs and spiders, as well as four-winged gargoyles. The most satisfying monsters are the shrouded behemoths, half seen through the mist, which appear to share little with terrestrial biology.

The Mist did very poorly in its initial week of release, demonstrating the limited appeal of horror films not involving zombies, serial killers or torture. But hopefully it’ll be talked about long after the likes of Saw IV.

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