Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Mist

I much prefer Stephen King’s short stories to his novels. Focused, compelling and free of the increasingly self-reflexive verbiage that mars some of his longer works, King excels when he simply and cleanly tells a story.

He’s also a master of that curious, much maligned, not-quite-one-thing-not-quite-the-other literary beast, the novella.

‘The Mist’ was one of his first novellas to be collected, in the anthology ‘Skeleton Crew’. In his notes section (another thing I love about King as a short story writer: he always includes the literary equivalent of liner notes), he describes ‘The Mist’ as having a “cheery cheesiness – you’re supposed to see this one in black-and-white … with a big speaker stuck in the window. You make up the second feature.”

This, for me, is the key to appreciating Frank Darabont’s divisive adaptation. Which isn’t to say “ah, Frank Darabont has deliberately made a B-movie, replete with low-budget locations, stock characters and slightly naff special effects”. It’s a reasonably accurate summarising comment, but Darabont has fashioned something a tad more sneaky and subversive than that.

Before we go any further, let’s offer a handful of peanuts to the elephant in the room and talk about the special cinematic relationship between Frank Darabont and Stephen King.

IMDb lists 109 credits for King as a writer, with another seven in development. This takes into account both work written directly for the screen (from his original screenplay ‘Sleepwalkers’ to his “novel for television” ‘Storm of the Century’ by way of his ‘X Files’ episode) and adaptations by other writers/directors of his original novels and stories. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the likes of ‘Sometimes They Come Back’ and ‘Children of the Corn’ (30-page stories dragged out to feature length running times and made on the cheap) have grown into veritable franchises. ‘CotC’ has notched up seven instalments, not counting an imminent TV remake of the first film!

Filtering out TV credits and direct-to-video fodder results in a more manageable list. Further reducing it to films that are actually good – setting the criteria as titles included in the DVD collection or that I’ve watched or would be happy to watch more than once; and allowing for ‘Christine’ as a guilty pleasure – and suddenly it’s barely at double figures. And of this select company, Darabont’s much-beloved debut ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is surely the reigning king of Kings. (Sorry, that was an utterly dreadful and borderline unforgivable pun. I won’t do it again.) There’s a case to be made, with ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Misery’ close to the top spot, that King’s non-supernatural tales have made the transition to the big screen more successfully than the out-and-out horrors for which he’s best known … but I’ll leave that for another article.

The Stephen King adaptations that do work have had big name directors behind them: Brian de Palma, Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, Rob Reiner, Taylor Hackford. But it’s Darabont who has distinguished himself with, to date, four adaptations: ‘The Woman in the Room’ (a 30-minute short), ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘The Green Mile’ and most recently ‘The Mist’. Which King likens, in its original novella form, to a “cheesy” drive-in movie.

Which is where we came in.

Darabont’s film follows the novella’s story arc pretty faithfully for most of its running time: a violent storm lashes a lakeside community whose denizens are made up of affluent out-of-towners who own summerhouses and considerably less affluent locals who don’t. Damage is done to said summerhouses, most notably a flattening of graphic artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane)’s boathouse and neighbour Brent Norton (Andre Braugher)’s vintage Mercedes sports car. At loggerheads over a property dispute, Drayton and Norton share an awkward car ride into town to buy supplies from a W—Mart-style shopping centre*. A mist rolls in and brings something with it. Something unspeakable and with lots of tentacles. Something that gets its jollies dragging people into the mist and emasculating them.

Trapped inside the shopping mart, tensions run high between the haves and have-nots. Norton won’t have it that there’s an evil beastie outside and starts some shit with Drayton. Loudmouthed and yellow-bellied local Jim (William Sadler) gets someone killed and when Drayton doles out a tongue-lashing takes against him. Oh yes, it’s powder keg stuff all right and those big ole pterodactyl-like things bashing against the window aren’t helping the frayed nerves.

So what’s behind it all? Some of the townsfolk speculate that an experiment – the mysterious Arrowhead Project – has gone catastrophically wrong at a nearby military base. According to religious nutcase Mrs Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), it’s the wrath of the God, the end of days, the last trumpet, judgement upon us all, fire and brimstone, revelations, the seventh seal and quite possible some rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. The beasties battering away at the windows outside are merely the catalyst for (and reflection of) the beasts of irrationality and paranoia rearing their ugly heads inside; and it’s not long until Drayton and a small cluster of non-religious-nutcases are holding out against Mrs Carmody’s increasingly delusional followers.

Frank Darabont shot ‘The Mist’ fast and relatively cheap. He mentions, in an interview with Empire magazine, that he usually preps for at least six months before shooting a movie. Here, he prepped for just a few weeks then hit the ground running. The finished product has a ragged, aggressive feel. The anchoring of the film in one location for most of its running time emphasises its B-movie qualities, as do the slightly unconvincing tentacles looping out of the mist, the occasional tendency to cornball dialogue and the ease with which Mrs Carmody wins over the others to her way of thinking (one minute they’re a bunch of ordinary people, albeit utterly scared, the next they’re chanting “expiation” and all in favour of a blood sacrifice).

And, yes, all of these elements are a deliberate ploy on Darabont’s part. The material is familiar, even if you haven’t read King’s novella. Think ‘The Fog’ meets ‘Dawn of the Dead’ by way of Lovecraft. From the edgy local who you just know is going to put our hero on the spot, to the meek guy who proves himself more than capable when the chips are down, you pretty much know what’s coming. And again, that’s just how Darabont’s planned it. He wants you in a nice little horror genre familiarity comfort zone. Because while he’s been channelling John Carpenter and George A. Romero (mismatched survivors; consumerist setting) and doing it quite obviously, he’s setting you up for the ending.

Oh, the ending. It departs from King’s ambiguous but semi-hopeful denouement and channels a considerably more cynical and despairing influence. The ending of ‘The Mist’ is like Darabont put his fingertips on the planchette and called up the spirit of Henri-George Clouzot and asked him to spell out a final scene guaranteed to devastate the audience.

And therein lies the brilliance and the dichotomy of ‘The Mist’: it’s meant to resemble a B-movie, but in the courage of its convictions it defines itself as something more.

*I championed an anti-W—Mart documentary on these pages a few months ago, so I’ll err on the side of caution and lawsuit-avoidance here, I think.

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