In 1980, Stephen King wrote a novella called "The Mist" for Kirby McCauley's Dark Forces. It was a claustrophobic little B-movie chiller that really played to King's "Everyman Deals with the Unknown" strengths. Then in 1987, an audio adaptation was recorded and released. This, too, worked well by letting the listener's imagination create its own personal horrors.
Now director Frank Darabont (who has previously adapted and directed three King stories: "The Woman in the Room" and those staples of cable movie timeslot fillers The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile), tries his hand at the darker side of King, with mixed results.
For the most part, Darabont's Mist is a bog-standard horror thriller: after a storm, a mysterious mist containing deadly horrors descends on a town, trapping a group in a supermarket. You've got the Average Guy, the Sensible Woman, the Kid in Peril, the Sassy Septagenarian, the Religious Nut, and The Guy Who Refuses To See The Truth (all directly from King's story, by the way), and the requisite things jumping at you, loud noises, bloody mayhem, and gross outs.
The audience I was with reacted as expected, with jumps and hoots and clapping at appropriate moments, but there was nothing new here, just the standard formula. The one deviation from the norm was the ending, which was unrelentingly (and unnecessarily) downbeat.
The special effects were downright cheesy, which can work in a B-movie where everyone's in on the joke, but which falls completely flat when we're expected to take them seriously. Everything was much spookier when we didn't know what was in the mist. As King himself said in Danse Macabre, when you reveal the monster, there may be a jump or a scream, but there's also a feeling of relief, because no matter how bad it is, it's not as bad as what we were imagining.
This is doubly true when the monster effects and the actors are occupying the same space and the actors are ducking from and swinging at not quite the right space. It takes you out of the story, and when that happens, you have time to wonder things like, "If the web being shot from the spider-thing's ass cannon acts like acid (cutting through flesh and dissipating with a hiss on the floor), then where did all these non-dissipating webs come from, and how the bloody hell can there be still-recognizable humans wrapped up in it?" Once you're distracted by questions like that, you've lost the movie.
There were some bright spots. Kudos to Marcia Gay Harden; her Mrs. Carmody went from goofy and pitiable to the scariest thing in the movie with style. Toby Jones was great as Ollie Weeks, a voice of reason and a man of action. Andre Braugher plays arrogant asshats better than anyone, and here is no exception. And it's utterly impossible not to root for Frances Sternhagen. Do not challenge the feisty little old lady holding the can of peas, mmm-kay?
And now let's talk a little bit about the ending, shall we? King's original ending was ambiguous: a group makes it to a vehicle, then drives off into the mist, unsure of what was out there waiting for them. If Hollywood wisdom is to be believed, audiences hate ambiguous endings, so it's not really surprising that Darabont goes for something more final.
But the ending he chose leaves me greatly confused, as it opens up the interpretation that Mrs. Carmody's notion of blood sacrifice as the expiation for sin was right. It also seems to imply that if the main character had just been willing to risk his son's life at the beginning, then things would have turned out much differently.
I guess it's possible that Darabont actually meant for us to come away with that message, but I don't think so. It feels more like Darabont meant this ending as a big middle finger to everyone who ever referred to Shawshank and Green Mile as overly sentimental or treacly, and while that may feel really good for him, it doesn't do much for me.