The Mist is probably one of the best little low-budget horror movies that you’ve never heard of. And you really should have: it’s written and directed by Frank Darabont (who also brought The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile to the screen) and this is very clearly the bridge between that earlier phase of his career and his time stewarding The Walking Dead to the TV screen.
The film is set in a small town in Maine (which tells you right away that like those earlier Darabont films, this is adapted from a Stephen King story.) In the wake of a severe storm, a strange mist descends from the nearby hills where a secret military base is located. Shortly afterwards, a terrified man runs into the local supermarket screaming, “There’s something in the mist.”
After that it’s a claustrophobic one-set low-budget movie, concerned as much with a small group of people under extreme pressure as it is with the mystery of whatever is outside the supermarket’s painfully vulnerable plate glass windows. Initially they are in denial, then there is a frenzy of activity to secure their position, but as things go from bad to worse a Lord of the Flies degeneration occurs, with the worst of it coming in the form of local Old Testament religious zealot Mrs Carmody who slowly wins around the terrified group to her way of thinking – even when it includes sacrificing innocent people to the monsters without. It’s a terrifying deliberation on group hysteria and mob justice, and it’s not hard to see something of modern post-9/11 times in its depiction of regular folk turned temporarily insane by events too horrific for them to process any other way.
It’s a tense and gripping affair, one that will really have you on the edge of your seat all the way. That’s thanks to a brilliant cast, which is led by Thomas Jane (often dismissed as a rather ‘beefcake’ lead but really showing how good he can be here), Marcia Gay Harden astounding as Mrs Carmody (one of Stephen King’s most loathsome and frightening human monsters), Andre Braugher as an uptight out-of-town blow-hard lawyer, Toby Jones as the meek local supermarket deputy manager with hidden talents, William Sadler as a weak-willed local hick and Frances Sternhagen as the kindly elderly school teacher, all trapped together in the supermarket as the horrors outside get exponentially worse.
I watched this film originally back in 2008 and thought it was terrific. It makes a virtue of its shoestring budget and as a result is hugely superior to other similar big-but-dumb movies that were around at the time like Cloverfield, while the CGI monster design reminds me of other contemporary films such as Tremors, Eight Legged Freaks and Evolution: but where those were strictly light-hearted affairs, this is as mirthless as it gets – dark and cynical with an ending as pitch black as any I’ve seen in a modern US film.
Coming back to the film for a second time in 2013, one extra thing that strikes me now that couldn’t have done first time around is how much this serves as a pilot run for Darabont’s The Walking Dead. There are even three actors (Jeffrey DeMunn, Laurie Holden and Melissa McBride) who subsequently transferred directly to the TV show in very similar roles; and it’s interesting to hear Darabont mention McBride as an unknown actress at the time who auditioned for her one-scene role in the film and got plaudits from all round after her take. Clearly the director remembered her and was quickly on the phone when casting the recurring role of Carol in the zombie horror series, and rightly so.
The Mist as a whole serves as a stylistic bridge for Darabont from the earlier classically-styled film adaptations he did, to a brand new paradigm using hand-held cameras and on-set practical lighting in order to shoot quick and dirty. It’s a reinvention for the director and tremendously effective, the perfect choice for the material and a great chance for him to experiment ahead of setting up The Walking Dead in a similar vein. Darabont himself covers much of this in the audio commentary on the DVD and Blu-ray, which is a exemplary example of its kind: rather than dashed off in an afternoon like so many of its ilk, Darabont took four days to piece this one together properly to make sure not a word was squandered, making it a compelling listen. (Darabont adds that four days was a record for him: the audio commentary of The Green Mile was apparently recorded over the course of nine months!)
There are several other special features, but the best and most important one on the Blu-ray and the two-disc DVD version is the inclusion of a black-and-white version of the film. There’s something about monochrome that simply suits this film, making it feel like an old school creature feature from the 50s and 60s and echoing the paranoia of George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The quality of the photography is simply gorgeous, especially when enhanced in high definition. Sadly the studio wasn’t enamoured with the idea of having to market a black and white film in the cinemas, so the film was released in theatres in regular glossy, saturated colour. While that’s all very beautifully done, the colour version prevents the film from achieving its sense of icy alienation, so it’s small wonder that Darabont describes the monochrome version as his ‘director’s cut’ and it’s definitely worth seeking out a home entertainment set that includes it.
All in all I strongly recommend this film for anyone into horror or science fiction, or indeed of any sustained drama of human nature; and if you’re a Walking Dead fan then I would describe this as an absolute must-watch.