Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Gore-illas In "The Mist"

OK, lame title. "The Mist" isn't all that gory. And what's an "illa" anyway?

That aside, I have to wonder if it's hard being Frank Darabont. Since Shawshank Redemption, Darabont directed The Green Mile and The Majestic, all based on Stephen King novels. None horror.

When he makes a movie, expectations are high. (Part of the relatively cool reception of The Majestic was doubtless the phenomenal quality of Shawshank and Mile.) And Stephen King's horror novels have made mincemeat out of some otherwise competent directors.

It's no coincidence that the movie isn't being advertised as "Stephen King's The Mist".

Anyway, I think Darabont could probably remake Maximum Overdrive into a quality film. The guy's got the chops. He does the atmosphere right and gets great performances, including from a lot of Darabont regulars, like the great William Sadler, Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn.

And it's a good thing, because the story is pretty threadbare. It's your basic barricaded-in-a-house movie, only it's a grocery store. This allows for some community dynamics that are not really much different then barricaded-in-a-house movies, though you got a bigger cast to work with.

In this case, the tension occurs between regular guy David Drayton (excellently played by Thomas Jane) and his group, versus crazy religious freak Mrs. Carmody (whom Marcia Gay Harden is a little too sexy to play but pulls it off anyway). I'd call her a "Jesus freak" but she's entirely Old Testament. I don't she ever invokes the J-Man.

And here we have precisely why King novels don't often translate well into movies. We have a pretty standard scenario (at least since Romero's Night of the Living Dead) which is larded with a bunch of clich├ęs: Where did the monsters come from? The nearby military base no doubt. Who causes trouble? The crazy religious person. In a store with grocery clerks, a judge, some blue collar workers, some soldiers and a painter (art, not house), who naturally leaps into the lead? The artist. The soldiers, completely unarmed, are mostly a zero or negative asset.

The artist writes the story, the artist gets to pick the hero, right? Fair's fair.

And the underlying message, of course, is that an unknown fear results will turn people quickly toward superstition and barbarism. A message underscored by Mrs. Carmody's increasing power as the ordeal wears on. We get to see denial in many forms (horror movies almost universally have an element of denial).

Darabont's so good that you don't mind that the premise is actually pretty badly botched. Monsters show up. These Lovecraftian beasties are quickly shown to be mortal, however scary. Granted, the people in the store don't know the extent of the mist, whether it's local or global, but they have a piece of it well understood enough.

Wacky cults tend to spring up when the danger is less immediate and has no clear source. Think volcanos, droughts, natural disasters.

I didn't find that part of the premise particularly believable. (Read my rant on Tooth and Nail for another lengthy ripping of the barricaded-in-a-building genre.)

What's more, we're treated to the sort of illogic that King ought to be famous for. In this movie there are, uh, space-spiders that shoot their acidic space-web (hellloooo, xenomorph!) all over people for some nasty thrills. And this stuff is seriously nasty: One person is nearly instantly bisected by it.

At the same time, it's all over everything. Shelves, walls, doors, buildings, and even people are completely bound in this horrifyingly acidic web crap. But it only burns as needed for the scares.

Not too important, I suppose. Even less important is the whole premise that there's an entire other plane of existence out there that's just waiting for us to let them so they can use us as the base of their elaborate ecosystem. Despite being completely alien in every way to them, we're still a tasty and nutritious snack, suitable for laying eggs in (did I mention Alien? Well, I'm mentioning it again).

This is horror, people, not sci-fi. If you want a more scientifically realistic treatment of how an alien invasion might work, you might try my old friend David Gerrold's War Against The Chtorr series.

Anyway, The Boy put it best in his review: "It's a good movie but the ending was a little too ironic for my taste."

Endings are tricky. There are only a few ways to end the barricaded-in-a-building story. The threat can be removed or escaped, it can turn out to be a global, persistent problem doomed to chase mankind through a series of sequels, or...both (think Night of the Living Dead).

I'll give Darabont credit: I didn't see the ending coming till the last shot was fired (about a minute before the actual reveal). But while The Boy called it "ironic", I'm more inclined to call it "mean". It isn't really sold well, either. (There will be plenty who love the movie and hate the ending.) I didn't hate it. You know, it wasn't the Lincoln Monument with an Ape's Head on it. But it was the meanest thing I've seen in a movie in a long time.

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