If you’re in the mood for a 1950s-style giant bug movie, played absolutely straight (unlike, for example, the recent Korean flick “The Host,” which had an ironic edge), but made with the sort of topnotch modern production Frank Darabont is famous for, step into “The Mist.” To be sure, there’s some “Fog” here too, as well as the sort of claustrophobic trapped-in-a-cage stuff familiar from the original “Blob” and “The Thing,” but this slick-as-a-whistle take on a Stephen King novella owes most to movies like “Tarantula,” “The Beginning of the End” and, of course, “Them!” It’s certainly a far cry from the director’s previous, more benign King adaptations, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.”
Indeed, the closest earlier King movie is probably the dreadful “Maximum Overdrive” (1986), which the writer directed himself—an awful piece of junk about customers trapped in a truck stop by their vehicles come to life. Happily, Darabont works with much more skill, and he’s got a far superior cast; “Overdrive” was actually a B-movie redux, while this picture, like so many made over the last three decades (ever since “Jaws,” actually), is B-movie material told in an A-list manner. So while “The Mist” is nothing more than an old-fashioned monster flick, it’s one that’s been given an impressive facelift.
The plot doesn’t matter for much. Artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his little son Billy (Nathan Gamble) go off to get supplies from the town market after a big storm pummels their rural Maine home, taking along with them their arrogant neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), a lawyer from the city. While they’re in the store, a strange mist settles over the place, out of which stumbles bloodied Dan Miller (Jeffrey DeMunn, a Darabont regular) claiming that his friend has been carried off by a weird creature. Soon all the customers and staff are hunkered down against what appear to be gigantic insects and barely-glimpsed tentacled things moving about in the cloud.
The group is a typically diverse bunch that soon divides into the scared but basically reasonable and heroic ones—David, of course, along with Dan, elderly schoolteacher Irene (Frances Sternhagen) and her young friend Amanda (Laurie Holden) and store manager Ollie (Toby Jones)—and the panicky wackos, who quickly fall under the spell of nutty, doom-spouting Bible-thumper Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden). Her converts include cowardly trucker Jim Grondin (William Sadler). As for Norton, he’s the ultra-skeptic whose disbelief that anything in the mist can be dangerous inevitably leads to tragedy. (In the old sci-fi flicks, the character would have been the scientist who objects to the suggestion that the monster should be killed on the grounds that it must be kept alive for study—and thus should be talked to instead.) Of course, there’s a small army of other people in the place to serve as victims and threats—this is a big store, after all—and most notable among them are some soldiers from a secret military base down the road. Do you suppose they might have something to do with the strange goings-in?
There’s not much that happens in “The Mist” that hasn’t been done before in movies of this sort, but generally it’s handled slickly enough here to be pleasurably nerve-racking. The fate of a stockboy shown early on is nicely staged, as are an assault by the insects midway through and an expedition to a nearby drugstore to secure some medicine. And Darabont has tacked on an ending that can be criticized for its almost sadistic irony but is still grimly effective.
Where the picture stumbles most is in the religious cultist stuff surrounding crazy Mrs. Carmody, whom Harden plays with the sort of shrieking intensity that one of the old grandes dames of the screen—Bette Davis, perhaps—might have brought to the part in their prime. The script stacks the deck so completely against the loony old biddy that the audience is primed like sheep for the moment when she finally gets her comeuppance. But the us-against-them turn to irrationality is obligatory in material like this; it’s the same blame game that Rod Serling played in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” though without the wickedly twisted postscript he added to it.
The rest of the cast is less wildly over-the-top than Harden, giving the picture the grounding in reality it needs to avoid becoming comic. Jane’s a stalwart but not superhuman hero, Braugher suitably supercilious, and Sadler appropriately craven. But of the main figures the ones who’ll probably earn most audience support for survival are the tough old broad played by Sternhagen and Jones’s nebbishy store manager, who proves to have more chops that you’d expect. The technical credits are equally professional, from Gregory Melton’s solid production design and Alex Hajdu’s art direction to Rohn Schmidt’s moody cinematography and Mark Isham’s apt score; and the visual effects from Café FX (supervised by Everett Burrell) are good without overwhelming the human side of the equation.
Fifty years ago “The Mist” would have run 80 minutes or so and been half of a drive-in double bill. Now it plays solo on two or three thousand screens and runs (courtesy of editor Hunter M. Via) over two hours. That may seem like too much of a pretty good thing. But it is still pretty good.