After a particularly powerful storm, the residents of a small town in Maine find that a strange fog-like mist is rolling down off the nearby mountains, covering their town. But this mist hides something, vaguely glimpsed creatures that attack viciously and without warning. Trapped in the local supermarket are numerous townsfolk and out-of-town vacationers. Among them are artist David Drayton (Thomas Jayne), his son Billy (Nathan Gamble), their combative neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) and school teacher Amanda Dumfries (Laurie Holden). After the store’s box boy is drug out the loading dock into the mist by giant tentacles, the group realizes that they must rely on themselves to ensure their survival. As tensions and attacks from the creatures outside mount, factions develop within the group and soon those who are following Drayton’s lead find themselves at odds with those who are listening to the increasingly violent and messianic rantings of one Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who believes that the sacrifice of one of the sinful townsfolk is what is needed to appease what she sees as God’s wrath on them.
The original Stephen King novella on which this movie is based is the author doing his best at reflecting the influence of turn-of-the-last century horror pioneer H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s stories were often told in the first person, set in spooky, crumbling towns along the New England coast (Lovecraft was from Providence, RI), and featured eldritch horrors from other dimensions that man was better off not knowing about. Unfortunately, because many of the horrors lurking in Lovecraft’s works were so conceptual, they have resisted cinematic adaptation. How can one effectively show some horrible elder god-like being on the screen when their very appearance was enough to drive men mad? Director Frank Darabont – who previously tackled the King adaptations The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999) – lucks out here with the very premise of the story giving him the cover to hide the larger beasties in the murky, foggy mist, only glimpsed as vague giant shapes that unpredictably lash out.
But it’s not the monsters without that the story is as concerned with as it is the monsters within the store. Trapping people in a locale and then placing them under attack is no new idea. It stretches from before films like Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) to Romero’s Night/Dawn/Day Of The Dead trilogy to the recent 30 Days Of Night. Done well, the trapped characters represent a cross-section of society, showing how fragile the veneer of civilization is and to what varied lengths people may go to to ensure their own survival. It is powerful story meat and the actors here dig into it with gusto. Marcia Gay Harden stands out as the crazed, wrath-of-God preaching Mrs. Carmody, making the character despicable in her hatred for those around her she sees as sinners while never letting the character slide into self-parody. Toby Jones also gives a great performance as the market’s seemingly shlubby assistant manager who reveals a surprisingly resourceful and courageous side. Directorial, Darabont keeps things at a slow rising boil as the trapped people’s tensions rise the attacks from outside only serving the further fray already frazzled nerves.
That is not to say that the film is without flaws. Darabont inherited a large cast from King’s original story and he tries his best at giving them all screen time. Even the couple of new characters added in don’t detract too much from the others. However, the three soldiers who enter the store right before the mist arrives disappear into the background until they are needed to come forward at the start of the film’s third act with an explanation for the horror that is being visited upon the town. When it comes to showing the smaller creatures that attack the market, there is some great design work that is let down by some shaky computer generated effect work at various points.
Darabont extends King’s material at one crucial and stunning moment- the film’s final scenes. It is a narrative trick that has been done similarly in other films, but is done with exceptional technique and verve. Without giving any details, the scene is a cinematic gut punch, a knife twist that leaves some of the surviving characters facing an even crueler horror than the ones they have escaped. While it is strong enough to divide audiences into “Loved it”/”Hated it” camps, this addition will almost assuredly secure the film’s position as one of the best horror film in the last several years.