The protagonists in George A. Romero’s zombie classic Dawn of the Dead (1978), with a helicopter at their disposal and the ability to hole up just about anywhere, choose the shopping mall as the best place to take refuge from the undead. After all, where else would you find such unlimited supplies of those two essentials, food and guns? Not such good fortune for the residents of Bridgton, Maine who find themselves in a rather less well-stocked supermarket when a strange mist descends outside, filled with strange tentacular creatures seemingly intent on cutting the townspeople’s lives short in as gruesome ways as imaginable.
But hey! Guess what? Maybe the real enemies are inside the building – like the crazed Bible bashing shit-stirrer, who takes a distinctly Old Testament view of events. And those army guys in the background looking shifty – they wouldn’t have anything to do with what’s going on outside, would they? When will they learn not to meddle with science, eh?
If this all sounds like fairly standard bug movie fare, then you’d be right. Other genre archetypes are inevitably present: the rugged handsome everyman, complete with annoying unadvisably running-around child; the dweeb who just might turn out to be a bit handy with a firearm; the foolish doubting expendables running headfirst into gory deaths. And of course the will-they won’t-they couples for whom things aren’t probably going to work out in the long term.
For all of its stock characters, standard CGI aliens and predictable scenarios, The Mist has opened to some breathlessly enthusiastic reviews. Part of this is down to director Frank Darabont’s name on the credits; a tremendous amount of goodwill surrounds his first Stephen King adaptation, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), whose broad theme of hope in the face of despair sees it regularly propelled to the top of favourite film polls, despite its shortcomings. Like Shawshank, The Mist is based on a King novella; the theme here though, instead of the possibility of hope, is its almost entire absence. As those trapped inside the shop realise the helplessness of their situation, there is a slow descent into Lord of the Flies savagery, with a touch of JG Ballard-esque ritualism. There is obvious social commentary here: what happens to good decent America when faced with an unknown enemy, or at least the perception of one.
Whether or not the film succeeds on this plane of social comment though is questionable: the leaden script and wooden characters don’t help matters, despite some good performances from the well-chosen cast. At least from my British perspective, Marcia Gay Harden’s rabid evangelist is more than a little too over-the-top to properly satirically bite, her overly eager to follow flock all too easily swayed towards bloodshed. As a genre bug movie, it does offer pretty good value, if at times rather too predictably. Many times references are made to other, better films – the Romero films, Aliens (1986) – which only manage to highlight this one’s shortcomings. At over two hours long it also rather over-stays its welcome: maybe a Roger Corman would have been rather less forgiving in the editing suite.
Shawshank, for me, had similar problems: noble ambitions, an interesting setup, excellent performances, let down by a cheesy script and a lack of directorial subtlety. The one standout moment in that film was the well-executed penultimate reel detailing Andy’s escape – one of cinemas more memorable triumphant endings. Darabont has produced a similarly memorable ending here, surprising in its unremitting bleakness and certain not to leave one skipping out of the cinema in glee. If the rest of The Mist is somewhat lacking, then it at least hits the mark squarely here.