Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Mist

I'm experiencing a strong sense of Déjà vu at the moment.  I should be, because I've technically already reviewed The Mist before.  Long before I ever thought about this project, I had rented the film and had very strong feelings about it, strong enough that they warranted a blog post.  If you've followed my blog long enough that you remember that post, some of this may sound familiar to you.  But the main difference this time is that rather than just reading a Wikipedia entry (shame on me!) I actually read the story before watching the film again.

I know I liked this story quite a bit when I first read it.  Revisiting it, I'm not quite as impressed.  It feels like it's missing a lot of meat on its bones, despite the fact that this is technically a novella and not a short story like the rest of Skeleton Crew.  I like the concept of the story, this strange mist that settles over the small town after a storm, and the way the people - a mix of tourists and locals - react while stuck inside the grocery store.  I mostly have a problem with some of the characters' reactions.

I like the movie better than the story, as I feel it improves upon the original - at least up until a certain point.  Frank Darabont once again presents a mostly faithful adaptation, with only a few changes. This is his first time dealing with a true horror story, and the change in genre doesn't affect his directing skills in the least, though I have some opinions on how he writes for the genre.

Our main character David is an artist with a wife and child.  He leaves his wife behind at home and brings his son to the grocery store.  Once the mist settles in and it becomes apparent that there is something out there, he has no idea whether his wife is alive or dead.  While I admit her chances aren't good, it makes him a distasteful and disgraceful person in the story once he starts lusting after Amanda, a woman who is trapped in the market with him.  He even sleeps with her.  I know this is supposed to be brought on by the stress of the situation, but I can't really imagine getting horny when there are monsters outside that could break in and kill me at any moment.  It just leaves a really bad taste in my mouth for this character. 

Fortunately, Darabont chose to drop this moment completely.   In interviews he said it was unforgivable for a movie hero as compared to a book hero, though obviously I believe it applies to both.  I like that he and Amanda have a clear amount of chemistry and have banded together in the film, but that it's not about lust at all.  We also get an added moment where we get clear confirmation that David's wife is dead, whereas in the story he couldn't get far enough down his street to find out.  But then this adaptation is all about eliminating grey areas.

In the story there is no definite explanation for the mist.  David repeatedly mentions that the creatures out there fill the people with a horrible sense of dread, and it most definitely calls up ideas of H.P. Lovecraft's monsters.  I love the monsters themselves too, similar to our own world's creatures but also different in just enough ways to escalate their horror.  You wouldn't catch me going outside in that.

While it's strongly suggested in the story that the mist is related to the Arrowhead Project the military is taking part in, here we get a member of the military police flat out confirming it.  While I liked the uncertainty in the book, I really like the way Darabont made the military more involved in the struggle, particularly the addition of Wayne, a local boy who had no real power at the site and didn't know what was going on, but gets caught in the crossfire.  His romantic feelings for the clerk Sally are a fairly predictable set up for her death to be more tragic, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work.  Add to that seeing Mrs. Carmody and the others kill him when they reach their full insanity, and I think he's a truly worthy addition to the story.

Speaking of Mrs. Carmody, she is a much more interesting and dynamic character in the film.  While she is portrayed as flat out crazy in the novella from start to finish, I enjoyed that the movie occasionally showed us brief glimpses of her being human.  It takes the rug out from under us so much more when she does go completely insane and start calling for people to die.  There's no doubt I also have to give credit to Marcia Gay Harden for her performance here.

I sense that Darabont may be great at bringing out the best in his actors in general, because a lot of them shine.  William Sadler plays a character who grows and changes dramatically throughout the film.  Some of it was present in the original story, but Darabont expanded it a bit more and Sadler makes every turn the character makes completely believable in this high stress situation.

There are two characters that are pure Stephen King and are great in both versions and those characters are Ollie Weeks and Mrs. Reppler.  Ollie is the store's balding, nerdy assistant manager who continually surprises David and us by being brave and capable, and is also apparently immune to getting drunk.   Mrs. Reppler is an elderly school teacher who proves to be tougher and more capable than a lot of the younger characters.  I was cheering for her and her cans of raid as she took on the spider creatures in the pharmacy.

The monsters in the film are largely CGI productions, but to their credit this is never a jarring distraction.  King described the bugs on the window as looking more like moths than dragonflies, but the designs in the film are so good that I can't complain.  There's a great amount of tension and chaos when the flying creatures make it inside the store, and the moment with the spiders in the drugstore is truly horrifying. 
The heart of the story however is all in the tension between the people stuck inside the market, and this is handled extremely well.  I cannot help but make comparisons to Night of the Living Dead here, and I have to say it holds up to that classic.  You can understand at least a little bit what each side is thinking, and as such it leads you to thinking about where you would stand and what you would do in the same situation.  It's excellent.

The main problem I have is that the longer these tense situations go on, the more pessimistic the movie becomes.  Our hero group gets together and basically predicts that everything is going to go to shit because these people have lost electricity and the ability to go home.  I simply cannot agree with this at all.  I live in New Orleans and I was affected by Hurricane Katrina and many other hurricanes throughout my life.  While people can certainly get unreasonably cranky when you turn off their A/C for a few days, it doesn't turn them into savages.  Can looting and violence occur?  Yes, unfortunately.  But that tragedy is far outnumbered by the kindness and generosity people show towards one another.  We see this time and again when natural disasters occur, and so I have a hard time swallowing this movie's belief that we're all animals deep down.  Human decency does exist.

So the events play out largely the same as they do in the book, though a few more people attempt to make the escape with our core of heroes.  Unfortunately, that choice is really only made for most of them to become fodder.  It's really unnecessary, because losing Ollie is painful enough.  I cried for him on this last viewing.  Toby Jones was fantastic, and I was sad to see him go.

It's time to discuss the ending, and this is the part where if you read my old review you know what I'm going to say.  I was partially hoping that maybe, on this repeated viewing, knowing what they were going to do, my initial shock and hurt feelings might be gone and I could try to appreciate it for what it was.  But, no, I still really don't like it.  In the novella, David writes down his story from a motel where they stopped for the night.  Here, they never stop once, not to sleep and not to attempt to get gas.  They do not hear anything on the radio.  So they make the choice to kill themselves.

Well, you know, I say that, but it's barely a choice.  They don't talk, they just look at each other and nod.  But here's the thing that makes this so damn stupid: shortly after poor Ollie's death, a spider jumped on top of the car.  It cracked the glass, but as soon as they're all shut inside, it moves on, literally walking over the car.  From what we see on their journey before they run out of gas, they are perfectly safe inside the vehicle as long as they slow down or stop moving when the creatures pass.  As horrifying as that enormous creature is, it doesn't really pose a threat to them because they are so small compared to it.  And even more importantly, the military shows up within one minute of David stepping out of the car.  The mist clears away.  Were they seriously never looking behind them?  And even if those pauses they took are what required the military to catch up to them, why would you shoot yourselves immediately when there are no monsters outside pushing against the car or otherwise proving a threat to you? And how does a man like David manage to do it so fast, to shoot his own son in the head as he's waking up and looking right at him.  He's not a soldier, he's an artist!  If anything you would expect him to have a severe amount of trouble doing anything violent!

So it's not that I feel betrayed by the fact that they killed off these characters.  Honestly, beyond Mrs. Reppler, I don't even like most of them all that much.   It's just that we're not seeing enough believable motivation for them to kill themselves.  The twist of knowing that they would have been fine if they had just waited a few minutes, and the added "hey look, that first woman who left the store was rescued!" is just completely lost because I'm too pissed off about this bad writing choice.  Thomas Jane is acting the hell out of that moment, making the perfect pained noises that someone who has just experienced far too much would make, and seeing him silently screaming on the ground while the two military guys in gas masks look at him clearly wondering what the hell happened is all great.  But the twist doesn't work.

For what it's worth, Stephen King really liked this addition, and I'm sure there are other people out there who agree.  He said he liked the fact that it wasn't a nice, neat ending, and you know from my previous reviews that I love an unhappy ending in horror when it's treated right.  But I know from that previous post I did that I'm not the only one who feels like Darabont missed the mark with that choice.

If I was Mrs. Reppler, I would give this film an A- as an excellent adaptation, with points taken away because of the ending.  I would give it a B- as a horror film which is tense and suspenseful, but has too pessimistic a world view and can't sell its own ending.

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