First of all, forget any lingering thoughts
you might have of the recent remake of John Carpenter's The Fog: the only thing it has in common with The Mist is shitty weather. Adapted from the Stephen King novel and released in November in the US, it's been awaiting a UK release for months - countries like Estonia, Latvia and even Kuwait got to see it before we did. Finally, some bright spark decided it merited a cinematic release in Britain, and it's a good thing, too: if The Fog was a pertinent example of everything that's wrong with modern sci-fi/horror, then The Mist is a great example of how to do it right.
The mist itself is little more than a plot point; a handy device that ramps up the atmosphere and simultaneously spares the blushes caused by low-budget effects work. It slowly descends on the small US town of Maine - King's own stomping ground - and traps 80 customers in a glass-fronted convenience store after a bloodied patron stumbles inside, screaming: "There's something in the mist!" Suitably freaked out, the shoppers go from mild panic to all-out terror when they lose a bag boy to a giant tentacled creature, realising there really is something big, slimy and pissed off outside.
It might take you a while to get a handle on The Mist. The first big beastie reveal is a let down, a somewhat clichéd encounter that may have you looking a little puzzled. Were the effects really that ropey? Is it a giant Octopus? Was that The Sherminator? But stick with its B-Movie sensibilities and you'll realise it's not about the monsters on the outside, it's about the poor bastards on the inside. It doesn't matter if it's aliens, giant parasites or Voltron lurking in the shadows; what matters is that the protagonists don't know
what it is, and that escalating fear and paranoia is ultimately far more scary. Frank Darabont's decision to include a black and white version of the film on the DVD is no mystery: this is a film that would have been a classic if made in the '40s or '50s.
With the emphasis placed firmly on character, the battle lines are quickly drawn between factions inside the store. On one side is Tom Jane's artist: we know he's a hero because a) he's The Punisher, b) because he has a family (his young son is stuck with him) and c) he's all for keeping calm. On the flipside is Marcia Gay Harden's religious zealot: a few bedraggled felines short of being a crazy cat lady, she wastes no time in pointing the finger at God and whips up a furore by prophesising the End of Days to her easily-led - and fast-growing - flock of frightened followers. Floating voters include William 'I was Death in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey' Sadler and Toby 'I was Truman Capote - not that one, the other one' Jones plus an array of extras who are destined to either become pseudo-religious doom-mongers or midnight snacks.
Granted, it's a fairly opaque allegory - Frank Darabont's script just stops short of telling us 'The monster was us all along' - but the conflict is an effective way of building tension without relying solely on creature feature staples. You do get some more immediate thrills - the entire front of the store is made of glass, remember - but only in small doses. The Mist isn't a film eager to hit any shock quotas.
Despite its lockdown on location, Darabont conjures a wonderful feeling of isolation - it successfully captures that feeling of being a very small part of a major event (look hard enough and I'm sure you'll find 9/11 allegories too). Radio announcements hint at larger-scale incidents; rumours rumble about government involvement and a mysterious army base "up in the mountains"; creatures get bigger and more terrifying the further Jane and his crew venture outside (one jaw-dropping last reel shot makes up for any previous dodgy FX work). You'll urge them to explore and escape; before you know it, you've forgotten the cheesy effects - Darabont has you right where he wants you, gripped and completely in the moment.
The Mist is unashamedly downbeat, offering little in the way of emotional crutches or footholds. Darabont famously refused to shoot the film unless the studio kept the ending, which is particularly bleak - perhaps a little Twilight Zone, but effective all the same. Importantly, the characters are rounded and human i.e. flawed, scared and stupid - there's very little hero bullshit allowed here. The Mist is a creature feature in which the monsters are almost incidental, but the panic and fear-mongering that comes with the territory is what ultimately causes the most chaos. That's a theme that's far more universal and enjoyable than the typical 'monster stalks teens' template; even audiences in Estonia, Latvia and Kuwait could tell you that. Ali