I love horror movies because they are the one film genre that always gets a strong gut reaction out of me. This is because I am a huge fraidy cat, and as a result, I tend to suspend my disbelief a whole lot more easily than I might with other movies. Separately, I love monster movies because they always trigger that part of my imagination driven by the notion of the strange and inhuman. Monsters evoke in me a sense of wonder more than dread. I suppose that’s why I don’t ever recall seeing too many truly horrifying monster movies.
That is, until I saw The Mist.
Frank Darabont’s adaptation of an old Stephen King novella does more than justice to the source material; it creates a Grade-A creepfest experience that manages to combine both the flinchiness of a monster-driven survival scenario with the psychological pressure of enduring the rapidly unfolding madness of one’s neighbors. Starring Thomas Jane and half the starting cast of The Walking Dead, The Mist is the kind of movie that mines King’s love for taking normal people in horrifying circumstances just to see how long they stay normal. Usually, it’s not long at all.
Then story begins after a severe rainstorm has wrought all kinds of damage to the sleepy town of Bridgton, Maine. David and Susie Drayton’s house has just sustained some damage from a fallen tree, so David takes their eight-year-old son Billy with him on a trip into town where they can get some supplies for repair. It seems like most of the town is there, since everybody got clobbered by the storm. Including, one imagines, the mysterious military facility up the road that everybody knows of, but nobody knows anything about it. Minutes after the Draytons arrive at the store, an injured, panic-stricken man runs across the parking lot and gets inside just in advance of a dense fog that rolls through the town and will not disperse. The babbling man says there are monsters in the mist, and only when a few skeptical townsfolk leave the store and are promptly eaten do we see that the guy wasn’t lying. All kinds of dire, insect-like creatures are roaming around outside, and anyone who ventures out there is a goner.
Some military guys eventually reveal that some kind of experiment went really wrong up at the military base which caused all of this, but by then, nobody really cares how this got started. They’re too busy trying to survive various monsters breaking into the barricaded store, as well as the wrath of Mrs. Carmody, a mentally unstable religious zealot who takes this disaster to be the Apocalypse, and swiftly begins acting like some kind of blood prophet. Chillingly, most of the supermarket follows her, and Drayton realizes that if he and his boy are going to stay alive and get back home to check on mom, they need to get the hell out of the one place where they are supposed to feel safe. Followed by a few like-minded survivors, they head out into the mist, to face monsters too legion to count and too horrifying to understand. They drive for as far as their car will take them. Eventually, they are out of gas, with monsters all around them. There are five people in the car. There is a gun with four bullets left. There is a pretty big decision to be made.
But that decision, which is the movie’s unbelievably intense climax, isn’t exactly this movie’s moment of truth. That comes far earlier in the movie, when the townsfolk are initially barricaded in the store, and realize that anybody who goes out into that mist is going to be attacked and eaten by alien monsters. Still, a single woman (played to the hilt by a pre-Walking Dead Melissa McBride) gets up to leave, because she has two young kids waiting for her at home, and no matter what is in the mist, she can’t just abandon them. As she goes off to a certain doom, nobody tries that hard to stop her. They all know that in her position, they’d do the same thing. And yet, when she asks if somebody, anybody, will at least help escort her to her car, nobody will. Not even the heroic Drayton, who declines for fear of orphaning his own son. The woman realizes she’s on her own and leaves anyway, but before she does, she tearfully curses her neighbors for refusing to help in her most sincere hour of need. This moment of collective selfishness sets the tone for the rest of the movie, and pitches a curious moral calculus: is it really the right thing to do to risk your life to help somebody else when doing so might jeopardize your own loved ones? The final moments of the movie offer its own answer, which is as solid a gut-punch of an ending any movie is ever likely to land on you.
The Mist was originally released in color, but Darabont later issued a black-and-white version, which is his preferred vision for this story. It is meant to evoke the pre-color monster movies of yesteryear, even though none of those ever were remotely as grim as this one is. Still, it feels perfect for this entire world and its characters to be reduced to shades of gray, their lines made indistinct by the haze surrounding them. This is not a story about good and evil. It is a story about weakness and strength, fear and courage. There is both moral and physical survival to he had here, and in such a situation, good and evil simply don’t have much of a presence. In the mist, everything is somewhere in between.