Writer-director Frank Darabont is fascinated by imprisonment. The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and now The Mist all involve people being incarcerated together. It's a fascination he shares with author Stephen King, who has written the source material for all of Darabont's films, and recently admitted he's a big fan of Prison Break...
The Mist originated as a 1980 short story published in King's Dark Forces anthology, reprinted in 1985 as part of Skeleton Crew. For Darabont's adaptation, the citizens of Bridgton in Maine (where else with King?) wake up to the wreckage a violent thunderstorm caused the previous night. Movie poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) agrees to give estranged neighbour Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) a lift to the local supermarket with his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) for provisions, seeing as Norton's car was crushed by a tree.
Once inside the store, an ominous mist spills across the whole town and traps all the shoppers inside, initially through fear after a bloodied man rushes inside seeking refuge, claiming there are dangerous creatures hiding in the mist. There follows a claustrophobic horror caper, punctuated with H.P Lovecraft-style beasties. Interesting to note Lovecraft's recent influence on monster design in film, with Cloverfield's hairless gorilla-bat premiering a few months after The Mist.
The shoppers quickly divide into factions: believers vs. non-believers (who are quickly swayed by incontrovertible evidence), then secular believers vs. religious believers -- led by formidable, Christian fundamentalist Ms. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who starts preaching Book Of Revelation clichés and proclaims the mist as God's punishment for mankind's sins.
The origins of the critters are kept ambiguous for awhile -- although, in true B-movie style, a military base that was inexplicably dabbling with inter-dimensional portals is later blamed. It was creepier when there was no explanation and your imagination could run riot, of course.
Darabont's predilection for emotionally torturing men also continues, as David struggles to keep the shoppers focused and united as siege mentality takes hold, personalities clash, beliefs are tested, and religious fervour begins to build. The characters are all archetypes, which works well within this pulp sci-fi premise, and is a good shorthand for audiences. David is the brave, protective father; Carmody's the Bible-bashing villain; Nathan's the exasperating sceptic; Jim's (William Sadler) the working class idiot; Ollie's (Toby Jones) the pragmatic nice-guy, etc. Together, they realize the real threat to their safety isn't coming from the monsters outside, but the monsters within themselves…
The creatures are a freakish delight, even if the quality of the CGI drops to the level of a straight-to-video chiller at times. There are arcachnid creatures that inject webs that burn through clothes and skin, wasp-like bugs with giant stingers, pterodactyl-like creatures with four wings, a lobster-like nasty with sharp claws, and other monsters that are nicely imagined and realized on a relatively small budget.
If there's one thing that undermines The Mist, it's a pervasive feeling of familiarity. The outside threat is refreshingly handled and there are enough regular set-pieces to keep you watching, but the core idea of people hiding from an enemy in claustrophobic conditions is a well-worn and predictable trope (see: Evil Dead, 30 Days Of Night, Night Of The Living Dead, et al.) The situation often slips into clichés and doesn't really make any of the characters into three-dimensional people. The women are noticeably underwritten, with Laurie Holden and Alexa Davalos pushed into the background to be quiet and caring -- as the boys lock horns with Ms. Camody's clique and plan their escape.
What rescues The Mist is a sense of pace (it clocks in at over two hours, but feels much shorter), likeable character actors, a weird vibe, fun developments, great creature design, and an extremely bleak ending (where real failure comes from a tragic lack of hope.) Indeed, whatever your thoughts on the film (and it will be hard to find someone who doesn't think it's Darabont's worst), the contentious ending is a definite talking point. And these days, that's a mentionable plus.