Ginger Nuts of Horror
by Kit Power
Due to the recent cinema releases of The Dark Tower and IT, along with the BFI showing a season of King movies to celebrate his 70th birthday, I saw five movies based on King’s work at the cinema in the month of September. So, here’s a mini-series of trip reports - nothing so grand as reviews - based on my month of King Cinema. Severe spoilers for both the movies under discussion and the source books abound, so be warned. Enjoy.
Back to London for this one, for one last visit to the BFI - Screen 3 this time. Which is a lovely cinema, but lacks the mind-buggering scale of the IMax.
My stepson was also in tow (last seen watching IT with me at our local multiplex <http://gingernutsofhorror.com/film-reviews/king-on-screen-4-it >) and we got ourselves situated in good time for lights down. I hadn’t seen the movie before. My mind had slotted it in as a late 80’s film (possibly confusing it with The Fog), but one I’d heard very good things about. It swiftly became obvious to me that I’d gotten that hilariously wrong, and also that I was watching something not merely pretty good but actually kind of magnificent.
I can’t speak to the colour version - I have since caught a brief section of it on TV, before swiftly turning over - but the black and white print we saw oozes atmosphere and menace. It is gorgeously shot, and of course the lack of colour gives the titular mist a luminosity that is deeply atmospheric and sinister, even before its nature is revealed. Later, when the monsters start to show up, it’s even more effective, rendering what I suspect might in color be some slightly shaky CGI into an unnerving, visceral experience. Interestingly, for me the black and white didn’t negatively impact at all on any of the gorier moments, either, with the black blood inviting just as much of a reaction as the red would have done.
And it’s worth reiterating King’s central storytelling philosophy here; in On Writing, he makes no secret of his disdain for advanced plotting, instead insisting that plot is, in essence, what happens when characters meet circumstance. The story of The Mist is an exemplar of this kind of King storytelling, with a vivid cast of characters trapped in a mundane environment made horrific by it’s surroundings. Apply heat until characters come to a boil, then watch them melt.
Given that, casting is hugely important, especially with the ensemble nature of the piece. Luckily, the cast was, I thought, uniformly brilliant. Thomas Jane has a blue collar everyman vibe to him - a kind of gritty, rougher Tom Hanks quality - which feels like it should be at odds with his profession as a fantasy and horror artist (one who appears to be working on a Stephen King book cover, to judge by the painting on display at the start of the film), but Jane sells it well, playing off the character as taciturn, withdrawn. It works, and sells both his relationship with his kid and with his neighbour (Andre Braugher, kicking every bit as much arse here as he did in Homicide: Life on the Streets).
But honestly, I’m struggling to think of a weak link. It was kind of odd seeing so many future Walking Dead alumni facing a different horror apocalypse, but you can see why the casting director of that show thought of them, based on this. The group dynamics are brilliantly played, with many of the best scenes created not through big action set pieces (though we have those, and they are glorious) but through groups of people simply talking, discussing, arguing, trying to puzzle out what is going on and what to do next.
At heart, it’s a very claustrophobic piece, and the basic theres are expressed pretty clearly by a small group of the characters themselves, as they debate what they can tell the larger group about the tentacle that just killed a kid as he tried to fix the generator: civilised behaviour is dependant entirely upon the trappings of civilisation, and that absent those structures and controls, things - people - quickly spiral out of control and into destructive, evil behaviour.
It’s not a terribly comforting view of humanity (and,as I get older, one I find less and less convincing as a Deep Truth) but bloody hell it makes for good horror stories, and certainly plays expertly on our own darkest fears about ourselves.
So the movie handles this well, with uniformly superb performances and intelligent, unflashy filmmaking. And while the initial tentacle attack via the loading bay felt just a touch overplayed, the two later action set pieces, especially the ill-fated drug store raid, are magnificent. That sequence really is everything you want from action horror - atmospheric, creeping dread, the fake out jump scare, incredible lighting and intelligent shot choices, and then the reveal that our heros are in very, very deep shit. The spider monsters are vile, and the moment they burrowed out of the captured soldier’s stomach was genuinely skin-crawling.
But for all of the adrenaline rush of that sequence, the later bug attack on the store, and the final mad dash to the car, the greater horror of the film comes from the deterioration of the survivors, as the bleakness of the situation presses down on them. The monsters outside the store are horrific, but it’s the ones inside the store that are ultimately more disturbing. The capacity for ordinary people to become part of horrific movements, and buy into demagoguery and/or religious extremism, is an anxiety King returns to again and again throughout his work, but it’s never writ larger or with bloodier clarity than in The Mist, and Darabont seems to have fully grasped this as being the true guts of the story. The script and direction reflect that, and allow the horror of fear driving desperation and barbarism to play out with truly uncomfortable clarity.
The ending of the movie takes that bleakness to it’s logical conclusion, and is stunning in its brutality. Jane knocks it out of the park in the final scene, becoming utterly undone by what he has to do… especially as the final gut punch lands and he realises he had to do no such thing. In the end, even the good people weren't immune to the warping effect of terror and desperation, and even the very best of intentions led to damnation.
It’s a genuinely shocking conclusion that elevates an already superbly made movie to something approaching genius. And as the credits rolled, the sounds of people exhaling rolled over the cinema, a collective expression of shock and relief. Quite a moment.
The Mist is one of King's finest novellas - maybe the finest - and with this film, Frank Darabont has delivered a movie the equal of the source material.
In fact, with that ending, he may even have surpassed it. I don’t have much higher praise than that.
This was a fantastic end to my mini King film festival.
Or so I thought.
Turns out, Netflix had a surprise in store for me, in October…