Moriarty Survives An Early Trip Into Frank Darabont’s THE MIST!
Published at: Sept. 18, 2007, 1:02 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
If you had to make a list of the most influential television shows in history, I’m guessing TWILIGHT ZONE would be very, very near the top of that list. Rod Serling created the formula, but he worked with some amazing writers to create the series. Guys like Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, or Earl Hamner Jr. all contributed significantly to the show, helping to set a tone and perfect a style of storytelling that was predicated not just on twist endings that frequently blindside the audience, but that also depended on strong moral messages about the way we treat each other as human beings. There are so many writers who have grown up admiring that series, and I’m sure Stephen King counts himself among them.
It seems like as long as I’ve known Frank, he’s been attached to do THE MIST. This one’s been brewing for a while, and the thing that Frank does best in adapting King’s work is capture King’s voice. He preserves the language that makes something so recognizably King’s. Here, King was doing some pretty knowing homage to Serling’s “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” and Frank’s film feels like a nod to those origins, but it’s shot in a very aggressive, documentary style, which makes it feel both vintage and cutting-edge at the same time. No easy trick, that.
And, yes, to respond to some of the comments I read in our own talkbacks and elsewhere after the trailer made its debut a few weeks ago... this is a very inexpensive film. I would imagine that this was made for about what Warner Bros. spent on the catering for THE GREEN MILE. That seems to be a good thing, though. First, it knocked Frank out of his comfort zone, and as much as I like his previous films, it can be exciting to see what happens when a director throws out all the things he depended on as a stylist. Frank’s always been all about the careful compositions and the long carefully-choreographed takes, but here, he’s brought the camera crew from THE SHIELD in, and the result is this ragged, hunted energy that really suits the material. The film is intimate, claustrophobic, and as it progresses, it gets more jittery, until a turning point when a horrible calm finally sets in.
The trailer places an emphasis on the special effects sequences, and Café FX, who handled the digital work in last year’s PAN’S LABYRINTH, is busting ass right now to finish their work here, which sometimes shares the frame with the onset work that was done by KNB. The movie certainly features a few key sequences where the monsters come out to play, but this really isn’t a monster movie. I think they spent their micro-budget really well, and there’s a set piece here involving bugs and dinosaur bird creatures and fire and chaos that is just plain great. A hint of Harryhausen underscores every appearance by the monsters, and I’m dying to see the finished work on the pharmacy sequence, where I saw mainly unfinished spiders. For fans of the novella, there’s a moment near the very end of the film involving something enormous walking by on the road... you know the moment if you read it. It’s brought to haunting life here with a creature that was designed by Bernie Wrightson, and for a lifelong Wrightson fan, it’s a kick to see something that is so blatantly his brought to life. And having said all that, if the effects work doesn’t really ring your bell... well, it’s still only part of what this movie is. The things that are truly scary and upsetting about this film aren’t the effects.
Thomas Jane intrigues me. He’s a very strange, very particular actor. He can vanish into a role. He’s sort of hard to get a bead on. Is he the guy from BOOGIE NIGHTS? Is he the guy from STANDER? The guy from THURSDAY or THE VELOCITY OF GARY or THE PUNISHER? Because side by side, none of those guys seem to be the same guy, and when so many of today’s actors seem invested in creating a persona that they live from movie to movie, playing constant variations on a single theme, Jane’s one of the guys who seems determined to keep “Thomas Jane” out of focus while bringing different characters to life. David Drayton’s one of the oddest things he’s ever played. At the start of the movie, he’s Drew Struzan. Sort of literally. When you see him painting in his studio in the film’s opening moments, it’s Struzan’s work you see lining the walls, and the one he’s actually working on should be a particular blast for King fans. There’s even a moment when he’s sort of grousing about the way studios typically just slap together movie posters in Photoshop these days that is so obviously a line written by a lifelong poster art nerd like Darabont, but which cuts right to the livelihood of Struzan... it just made me laugh. It’s fairly inside baseball.
But that’s just a touch. Just a little thing. What really defines David is his fatherhood. Nathan Gamble plays Billy Drayton, David’s son, and he’s most recognizable from his role in BABEL, where he was one of the children left behind with the Mexican housekeeper in the most harrowing sequence in the movie. Watching that film in the theater, it was the scene in the desert involving Gamble and Elle Fanning and Adriana Barraza that freaked me out, set me on edge. Here, Gamble has several scenes that just gut me, and there’s a quiet conversation with Jane halfway through that tears me apart. It’s one of the simplest scenes in the film, but it’s real. It’s primal. Billy asks his dad to make him a promise. “You have to promise the very best promise that you can,” he whispers. “You have to promise you won’t let the monsters get me.” After what Billy’s seen, after what his dad’s seen, that question is no idle childhood speculation. Billy’s asking something that you can’t really ask of someone, and the notion of a ten-year-old acknowledging that he knows he’s probably about to die... that’s some dark, grim shit.
More than anything, that’s the word I’d use to describe THE MIST. “Grim.” Like I said, effects play just a small part in this film’s ultimate impact. What makes this truly horrifying is the shit we do to each other as people. Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) is the face of fear and extremism, and as things get worse both inside the grocery store and out over the course of this film, she emerges as a fairly persuasive human threat. I am sure some people will be upset because she’s portrayed as a religious fantatic, but she represents a valid point of view in this story. When faced with the extraordinary, it’s not a stretch to assume that many people will turn to religion to give them comfort or hope or strength. And as things wear on and get worse, Mrs. Carmody begins to prey on people’s proclivity to prayer, an insidious presence giving voice to everyone’s darkest suspicions. People want to understand. They want explanations. Carmody offers one, and she offers up “proof” that ties everything together, using scripture to somehow make sense of the hellscape they all get glimpses of in the mist. Just how far people fall apart is the substance of the film, and it escalates with a steady, awful gravity. In a way, I think part of what makes this film so shocking is that Darabont’s work as a director has always been marked by a sort of sweetness. SHAWSHANK, GREEN MILE, THE MAJESTIC...
... but not this one. This one’s jet-black, and it’s a reminder that Frank’s roots are indeed in horror. The opening moments are a sort of a tip of the hat to the tone that audiences might expect from a Darabont film, but that all goes away fairly quickly, and by the time this film reaches its shattering conclusion, you’ll understand why this didn’t get made at Paramount. You’ll understand why no studio could make or release this. You’ll understand that Frank Darabont is out to hurt you. He wants to make this horror film count. He wants it to stick to you, leave a scar. Even having read this a few years ago, seeing it play out is something else altogether. Frank’s cast really delivers in the last ten minutes or so. They hit every note just right. There are a few places earlier in the film where King’s highly-mannered small-town dialogue lays a little flat in the mouths of a few of the actors who are more naturalistic, but by the time things come to their wrenching end, everyone still in the film really nails it in moment after awful moment.
I still need to see this movie finished. I need to hear whatever final score they decide to use. I need to see the finished FX work all the way through. I need to see it color-timed, so all the darkness works on me the way it’s supposed to. But even in the state I saw it in, THE MIST is the real deal... a horror film that actually still has the ability to horrify. This isn’t a movie about cheap scares... it’s about deep scares. There are few things we are more afraid of deep down in the animal center of our brains than being devoured by the night, and this movie is a great reminder that there are things worth being afraid of, that some of them may live outside of us while others simply lay dormant in us all until some crisis awakes them. THE MIST works best when it reminds us that the genre of “horror film” is something more than just a way to score some quick opening weekend money off unsuspecting kids. At its best, the genre allows us to challenge ourselves to survival of things we can’t imagine surviving. It’s a hell of a movie, packing a much bigger punch than one would expect from such a modest production overall, and it’s a pretty significant reinvention of Darabont as a filmmaker.
Here’s hoping this experience spurs him to work again sooner rather than later. Especially if his next movie’s going to pack a brutal, unforgiving punch the way this one does.
I've still got more reviews to work through this week, but right now, I'm off to interview Sean Penn about his amazing INTO THE WILD, which I can't wait to see again. This is already one heck of a fall season, and it's just barely gotten started.