Divided By Fear: THE MIST At 10

How Frank Darabont's quintessential King adaptation is also the perfect post-9/11 horror picture.

Stephen King first published The Mist in the ‘80 horror anthology Dark Forces – a 134-page fictionalization of a real-life event, where a thunderstorm knocked out the power in Bangor. The next day, the author journeyed to the grocery store to purchase some food. Per the “Notes” section in Skeleton Crew (where the tale was re-printed in ’85), King recalls that he was searching for hot dog buns and experienced a vision, in which a “big prehistoric flying reptile” was flapping around the store. By the time he’d brought the bread to the checkout counter, the basic blueprint for The Mist had already formed in his mind: a group of survivors, trapped following some apocalyptic occurrence, would have to fight for their lives against unknown malevolent forces.

It’s a quintessential King set up – blue collar, relatable, and yet totally fucked. For many readers, that first installment in Skeleton Crew was difficult to top, as it combined the author’s plainspoken knack for everyday terror with the unknowability of H.P. Lovecraft’s existential New England dread. Frank Darabont responded to the story upon its initial publication, and after the former Hell Night (’81) production assistant climbed the Hollywood ladder – co-writing A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (’87) and the splattery remake of The Blob (’88) with Chuck Russell along the way –  he helmed the critically lauded adaptation of King’s Different Seasons novella, The Shawshank Redemption (’94). Viewed by many to be one of the very best pieces of King cinema (by even the writer himself), Darabont began discussing an adaptation of The Mist with the Maine horror maestro, resulting in King selling him the rights. Still, it’d take another thirteen years (and a Green Mile [‘99]) before cameras finally rolled on the project.

Darabont was fresh off shooting an episode of the extreme FX cop drama The Shield when he finally got to helm The Mist. Much of the film’s crew came from the cable series, including cinematographer Ron Schmidt, whose handheld style lends the movie an immediacy that classical formalism simply cannot replicate. But this docu-realism – as much as that descriptor can be used when discussing a picture involving giant death spiders and flesh-hungry tentacle beasts – also shifts the focus away from the fantastical elements and zeroes in on what attracted Darabont to King’s writing in the first place: the characters. Though this is ultimately an apocalyptic tale involving government conspiracies and portals to other dimensions, the true conflict comes from the people, trapped and scared in an ordinary environment following a catastrophe. Though it may be unintentional (given the time Darabont took to envision his take on the material) The Mist becomes the ultimate post-9/11 horror picture, where fear divides the living into blocs of belief, ready to do away with each other before the monsters can.

David Drayton (Thomas Jane) is an old school, Struzan-esque one sheet artist, painting a poster for a project many King fans would kill for (and ten years later be crushingly disappointed by) in his studio when the storm hits. A sensible man, he gathers up his clan and heads to the basement, just before a giant tree comes crashing through the picture window and destroys all his art. However, he’s fine -- it’s just stuff, after all. Following a tense conversation with his big time NYC lawyer neighbor, Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), the two pile into David’s Land Cruiser with the Draytons’ small son, Billy (Nathan Gamble), and head to the grocery store for provisions. Though he promises his wife that they’ll all be home safe and sound very soon, David has no idea that the food depot will become their trench in a war against dark forces coming to invade this sleepy Maine town.

Like John Carpenter’s The Fog (’80), the titular weather anomaly is ominous to everyone from the get go (though, also like Carpenter’s campfire masterwork, no rational human could’ve predicted the evil contained within its tendrils). Nevertheless, business continues at the Federal Foods Company, as David interacts with its regular faces – among them lifer loser Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones), retired schoolteacher Irene Reppler (Frances Sternhagen), and pretty checkout girl Sally (Alexa Davalos). Rounding out this working-class ensemble are a few Darabont and Shield regulars, as William Sadler (Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight) fills a grease-monkey’s work uniform quite well, and Laurie Holden (The Shield) brings a calming friendliness to pretty stranger Amanda Dunfrey. As soon as Dan Miller (Jeffrey DeMunn) comes screaming and hollering off the street, shirt bloodied because he claims “something grabbed him in the mist”, that thick curtain of impenetrable grey surrounds the grocery store and can no longer be dismissed as harmless. Without warning, the power’s out and everybody’s in a panic as to what they should do – stay put as its seemingly safe in their brick and mortar fort, or attempt venturing out into the hazy void to potentially meet the creatures Dan’s so terrified of.

A quick trek to try and restart the generator on the loading dock leads to bag boy Norm (Chris Owen) getting yanked out into oblivion by a set of fanged feelers, which rip the flesh from their prey with disarming ease. No one will listen to David or Ollie when they return – certainly not Norton, who counts himself as a calm, logical thinker. Even after they take the Federal’s manager out back and show him one of the beast’s severed limbs, Norton refuses to listen to the rantings and ravings of these white lunatics. They’re just trying to play a trick on him, because they’ve never liked “outsiders” coming into their quiet little town, even if it’s just a few months out of the year for vacation.

This is where the main conflict in The Mist is established. While the supernatural forces outside the grocery store certainly carry their own brand of menace, Darabont is mostly fascinated by the ways in which we faction off in the face of calamity. Even though its unspoken, there’s a racial element to Norton’s distrust, as he’s one of the few black men in the store, surrounded by white faces he already thinks are out to get him due to his foreign nature. Only instead of jumping right into divides of skin color, Norton instead positions himself as the lucid mind, facing an irrational mob mentality. He cannot let the hysterics take over, and soon joins forces with those who think similarly, heading up an expedition to the Federal’s parking lot that any smart audience member knows is doomed from the second they step foot through those sliding front doors.

If Norton is the pragmatist, skeptical even when presented with hard facts, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) sits to his far right, kneeling in the bathroom and praying to her vengeful, Old Testament Lord and Savior. King has a long history of writing zealots that’ve been translated to screen better than they are on the page (Pipe Laurie’s Margaret White in Brian De Palma’s Carrie [‘76] being a prime example). Harden finds a humanity in Mrs. Carmody that’s sorely absent in the author’s text, as though she’s the shrill voice of fear, preying on others’ worries via prayer, we sense that she truly believes God is speaking to her in this time of outlandish strife. The creatures that lurk in the thick cloud of confusion are faceless enemies whom she can rally her own cult against, and those who refuse to join are sinning interlopers, unable recognize the plagues sic’d upon them during these modern Revelations caused by stem cell research and abortions. She’s Jerry Falwell in a dowdy housedress, one step removed from screaming about fags forcing God to crash two planes into the Towers, her fury made all the more real by Harden’s revival tent histrionics, exploiting the weak-minded by calling for callous expiation as the only remedy.   

King’s always been a 60s radical at heart – drugged to the gills and questioning the validity/trustworthiness of his government (what with his nefarious, recurring Shop, a stand-in for very real CIA acid tests and personal privacy invasions). Though The Mist’s tentacle beasts may harken back to Lovecraft, the origins of these monstrosities stem from military experiments performed high up on the mountain above town. Soldiers who arrive at the shopping mart moments before the titular elemental event descends later let on about Project Arrowhead, a top secret set of experiments that opened a doorway to another darker dimension, unleashing demons our human minds can barely comprehend. This catastrophe comes complete with its own conspiracy theory; madness made all the more real due to unchecked bad governmental science.

The ending of Darabont’s The Mist is always going to be a point of controversy for many fans of King’s work, as it morphs the ambiguous final lines of the horror writer’s short story into a primal howl of despair. David escapes the store with his son, Amanda, Ms. Reppler, and Dan Miller in his Land Cruiser. They cling to hope that maybe the car can cut through to the other side of the fog before it runs out of gas. But when the vehicle finally sputters, David plugs five bullets into the survivors before tossing himself from the vehicle, calling for the creatures to come and take him away. Instead of another flesh-eating insectoid, a tank emerges from the mist, along with a convoy carrying a mother (Melissa McBride) who followed her hope out of the store during the movie's earliest moments, letting it lead her through the darkness to her children. It’s a Twilight Zone reinvention of King’s text, injecting a smirking irony that rubbed roughly half the audience the wrong way. This is what happens when you give in to utter bleakness; there’s nothing left for you to do but scream at the sky, and futily wonder what you could’ve done different.

Darabont originally intended The Mist to be projected in black and white - complete with an alternate soundtrack that's more akin to a '50s sci-fi picture - heightening the Serling-esque elements of his take on the material. This version is included on the home video release and (citing its creator's original intent), many of the movie's fans choose to view it this way. However, it's arguable that sucking the color from The Mist drains the picture of its most impactful political elements, and robs the handheld camerawork of its immediacy. It’s a clash between old school formalism and the modern context/technique that helps shape its most haunting subtext. Here is a story that was first published in ’80, had its cinematic incarnation devised in ’94, but feels most relevant after ’01. In the end, The Mist is a brilliant example of how intent can be morphed by the passage of time, while still highlighting how the division of human beings through belief is a tragically timeless theme.