Cynics like to claim that there are no new stories to be told, but even if that argument holds some amount of truth, who's to say that we can't find exciting new ways to recycle the old ones? Essentially Night of the Living Dead set in a small-town grocery store instead of a farmhouse -- and substituting Lovecraftian creatures from another dimension for flesh-eating ghouls -- Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's apocalyptic dirge is nothing new in the grand scheme of things, but that's not to say it's ineffective by any means. In addition to highlighting how the monster that dwells within man can easily outweigh any perceived external threat, Darabont's unforgiving frightener dives headlong into the abyss with a grim denouement that's sure to spark debate. It's no secret that Darabont is a die-hard King fan (his association with the prolific author goes as far back as the 1983 short The Woman in the Room), so when fans found out that the filmmaker was abandoning the drama of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile in favor of out-and-out horror, the hype was understandably justified. Over the years, it has become painfully obvious just how important it is to have a director who understands King's unique sensibilities when adapting the author's works for the screen, and here, as before, Darabont proves that he is more than up to the task.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Mist is how distinctly different it feels from Darabont's previous King adaptations; whereas The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile both felt meticulously crafted and remarkably earnest, this bleak look at a decidedly supernatural disaster instead comes off as intimate, urgent, and even somewhat reckless at times. Of course, much of this shift in tone can be attributed to the fact that while his previous King adaptations were unabashedly cinematic thanks in large part to the visual contributions of cinematographers David Tattersall and Roger Deakens, this time out Darabont has instead opted to work with the same crew he bonded with during his work on The Shield. While at no point does The Mist ever even come close to being as depressingly bland as the average Stephen King miniseries, it does feel more like a large-scale television production than a feature horror film at times, right down to the repeated fade-to black between scenes. Also elevating The Mist above that of your typically uninspired King adaptation is some truly smart writing by Darabont, and the ace cutting skills of The Shield editor Hunter M. Via (the latter's handling of an early tentacle attack is particularly effective).
There's no doubt the creepy crawlies that emerge from the titular vapor will give arachnophobes and entomophobes alike a solid scare -- and the sheer variety of the creatures alone is enough to steer the imagination toward the unthinkable horrors of Cthulu and his minions -- but the computer animation occasionally borders on hokey, leaving Darabont to pick up the slack by ratcheting up the human drama. As in any effective siege film, human interaction plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the story, and this is the area where Darabont the screenwriter truly begins to shine. When the old Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) becomes convinced that she is the true vessel of God and begins barking fire and brimstone to the frightened prisoners of The Mist, things shift from just supernatural scary to real-world terrifying. An enthusiastic but harmless zealot at the onset, Mrs. Carmody eventually manages to make even spiky-tentacled monstrosities from another dimension look like they might be kind of cuddly by comparison. It's fascinating to see how the alliances unfold as the situation grows increasingly tense, and Darabont handles the growing division and animosity among the fractured survivors with the kind of skill that really draws the viewer in.
There's no question that Gay Harden almost single-handedly steals the show as Mrs. Carmody, her wild eyes blazing as she casts down the judgment of the almighty. It's hard to come off more vicious than a inner-dimensional nightmare beast with the face of a human and the body of a pit-bull-sized scorpion/tarantula hybrid, but thankfully for the audience she manages to pull off the "Cooper" role (see Night of the Living Dead) with the kind of relish that can coax an entire theater into despising her. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Thomas Jane is square-jawed perfection as perhaps the most devoted father in the history of modern horror. Alternately nurturing and completely bad-ass, Jane only rings false during the final, crucial moments of the film (though, to be fair, it is difficult to tell how anyone would react under such circumstances). Standouts among the supporting players include William Sadler as a class-conscious local whose mind proves a bit to small to process the horrors around him, and Toby Jones as the meek check-out counter clerk who could teach even Dirty Harry a thing or two about getting a clean shot.
When all is said and done, one would be hard-pressed to cite The Mist as a truly ground-breaking horror film, though as with much of Stephen King's written work, it does get the job done amicably while successfully getting under the viewer's skin in a number of ways. Add to that an ending that might just prove too hard-hearted for some, and the result is a rare beast -- a horror film that somehow manages to rob all hope from the viewer, and then send them out into the daylight with a swift kick in the teeth.