The Mist (Dimension Films, R)

film_mist_sm.jpgMrs. Carmody sets up a dangerous conflict between those trying to think clearly and practically, and those who want to reduce everything to a "good versus evil" dilemma.







Say this for Stephen King: he’s an idea man. Whether or not you like his books and the movies made from them, King is constantly coming up with interesting twists on our most basic fears, and ways to spin compelling tales from them. In The Mist, based on a King novella, the setting is once again a small Maine town, where a freak, eerie storm is soon followed by a thick, all-encompassing mist. The phenomenon traps a bunch of villagers in the local grocery store—these include artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane), his son Billy (Nathan Gamble), an attractive divorcee named Amanda (Laurie Holden), Drayton’s antagonistic neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) and a shrill religious extremist named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden). The store is very busy at the time the mist hits, so there are lots of different personality types in there with the expected variety of reactions…but what is it they are reacting to? What’s so bad about a little fog bank?

Plenty, it turns out, as this particular fog contains some nasty creatures, of varying sizes, speeds and configurations. But they all have one trait in common: an appetite for human flesh. "We’re in deep shit here; people need to know," Drayton implores the trapped throng. But communication with the outside is impossible…all electricity has been knocked out, and venturing beyond the store may clearly be hazardous to your health. This is made doubly clear during a well-staged scene where a small group of skeptics and courageous types decide to take their chances and seek help, though the always-thinking Drayton tells them to take one end of a long rope with them so he can measure how far they get before there’s "trouble." Drayton and friends keep watching to see if the rope will stay loose, and you can pretty well guess the results. It’s a great, suspenseful set piece.

Inside the store, Mrs. Carmody starts preaching fire and brimstone. These creatures have been sent by God to punish non-believers, she says, and as things get more and more desperate, she’s able to rally more folks to her side, setting up a dangerous conflict between those trying to think clearly and practically, and those who want to reduce everything to a "good versus evil" dilemma. This aspect of the film is a thinly veiled allegory about the impact of religion during wartime, and it’s a bit oppressive and annoying after awhile. But the point is surely made.

Much better, though, is the very believable tension director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) dramatizes, depicting different types of people responding to desperate circumstances, trying with all their wits to figure out what to do. Some are reactionary, some panic, and some try to keep a clear head. The suspense is built up beautifully, and there are surprises galore.

Thomas Jane is just fine as the lead; he gives a nuanced, tightly contained performance that’s strong enough to serve as the audience’s focal point. Holden makes a warm, reassuring everywoman — the emotional opposite of Harden, who’s certainly believable (completely immersing herself in her role), but so obnoxious that when she’s beaned with a can of peas, you cheer. And there’s a host of impressive smaller roles, all serving a vital purpose.

But it’s the atmosphere of claustrophic dread and the inter-dimensional critters that drive this movie. Some will quibble over the lack of a clear explanation (although I tend to think that’s an overvalued notion in horror movies), and the film is maybe not as scary as it ought to be (though there’s gore a-plenty). But it’s one of the better movies made from a King novel in some years, one that holds your attention effortlessly. But hey, why no playing of "Misty" over the closing credits? Surely Johnny Mathis could’ve brightened up this apocalyptic doomscape… | Kevin Renick

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