The best Halloween film is probably Halloween, now a classic, but when I was little—I guess I was 16 in 1979—I thought Halloween was a strange betrayal of the kinds of movies I liked—the ones with grit, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Night Of The Living Dead, that really were about ordinary people (not just sassy teens) confronted with unspeakable horror. The movie I want to champion here, though, is 2007’s The Mist by Frank Darabont, based on a short story by Stephen King.
The Mist quite literally has everything I enjoy in a story: A single location, a continuous time frame, a moral dilemma between the humans, and… actual monsters! I love monster movies and they are rare nowadays (Yes, Cloverfield. Yes, Godzilla. Yes, Jurassic Park… sort of. Oh, shit! I just wanted to change my movie to Attack The Block. Have you seen that movie?! Best ever. But I’ll save that for next year).
The Mist begins with a simple dolly across the paintings of a genre movie poster illustrator. It lands on him at work, then the lights go out. Cut to a tree blowing in a ferocious wind. Dolly back to reveal the artist staring at the tree through the picture window with his wife and kid. Then down to the basement, to seek refuge. Back in the artist’s studio, a tree lunges through the plate glass, shattering it. Next morning, in the storm’s aftermath, a strange mist gathers across the lake. Father and son drive to town to get supplies and are trapped in the local supermarket while the mist closes in, concealing unimaginable terrors. The people trapped in the market struggle to survive an assault by creatures that may have entered this reality from another dimension. Scary stuff.
There is great economy in the shooting style, which utilizes graceful steadycam shots and an array of focal lengths. As the tension develops, the filmmaking resorts to more restless handheld shots, wrack focus, and searching zooms, giving the film an immediacy from start to finish. It all builds with a deliberate and painstaking naturalism in the dialogue and the logic of events.
The character actors are strong throughout; many of the players have appeared in Darabont’s previous films (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) or stuck around for future projects (The Walking Dead), suggesting an aesthetic of loyalty and community in Darabont’s approach that is rewarded with the genuine work he gets from his cast. Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harding, Toby Jones, and Andre Brauger are standouts, but every player brings an authentic performance—a tribute to Darabont’s directing approach. In his writing, he is able to stay visceral and driven, while clearly expounding on themes that matter to him: The dangers of religious fervor and demagoguery; social and political topics are seamlessly integrated into the script, because those issues are the fabric of our lives. How relevant for today’s Halloween/election season!
The film progresses in real time with a series of increasingly horrific set pieces and the tension ratchets up scene after scene, driven by the interplay between human aspirations and weaknesses, heroism and cowardice. The action constantly reminds us of fate’s indifference: Nice people suffer unbearable ends. The creature designs throughout are truly frightening because they are unfamiliar and inconsistent—from tentacles reaching out of the mist (not the best compositing, but scary just the same), to the incredibly freaky spider creatures with weird skull faces, to the oversized insect creatures, to the fantastic gargoyle monsters that fly through the supermarket. But there’s more: Huge, towering shapes that thud across the landscape, and crab-clawed giants that snatch you and tear you to bits. The monsters that dwell in the mist are terrifying.
The film is renowned for its bleak ending. I have tried to wrap my brain around those horror fans who disparage the ending, but to me it is an act of bold filmmaking, ending a movie with soul-crushing despair, regret and hopelessness. The story has it that Darabont was offered $200K to alter the ending, and he declined. The movie was not a success, but I say this is what good horror looks and feels like.