Mutant insects and religious zealots are the chief villains in “The Mist,” and it’s hard to say who’s uglier. Much nastier and less genteel than his best-known Stephen King adaptations (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile”), Frank Darabont’s screw-loose doomsday thriller works better as a gross-out B-movie than as a psychological portrait of mankind under siege, marred by one-note characterizations and a tone that veers wildly between snarky and hysterical. The Darabont-King imprimatur and curiosity among the author’s legions of fans should lure healthy crowds over Thanksgiving weekend, though long-term B.O. prospects look foggier. Ancillary should make up any shortfall.
Six years after the lavish critical and commercial failure of “The Majestic,” writer-director Darabont has returned with a vengeance to the horror genre (his scripting credits include such ’80s titles as “The Fly II” and “The Blob”) with this comparatively lean, mean apocalyptic scarefest. The basic premise of King’s 1980 novella — a malevolent fog descends on a small town, trapping several residents inside a supermarket — has been given a shot of docu-style immediacy from the darting handheld camerawork by Rohn Schmidt (FX’s “The Shield,” an episode of which Darabont directed), and its grotesque monsters have been impressively realized thanks to a well-stocked arsenal of special, visual and creature effects.
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But Darabont’s desire to infuse an otherwise fleet genre exercise with dramatic significance — to make a statement about man’s cruelty to man in times of crisis — ends up defeating him here. Playing like the schizoid hellspawn of Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” and the low-budget bioterrorism thriller “Right at Your Door,” pic is arguably less persuasive than either in advancing a bitterly pessimistic view of human nature.
After a freak storm damages their lakeside home in western Maine, illustrator David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his son Billy (9-year-old Nathan Gamble) head to the grocery store to stock up on food and supplies. But then the mist rolls in, and while it’s not clear what it is (or worse, what it might be concealing), most of the shoppers have the good sense to stay inside, especially as those who go out tend not to return in one piece.
Several nasty shocks later — courtesy of a slimy, many-tentacled behemoth and giant, winged, vaguely prehistoric-looking bugs that smash their way into the store — a supermarket employee announces, with priceless understatement, “It appears we may have a problem of some magnitude.” And as fear, desperation and factionalism set in among the refugees, “The Mist” raises the inevitable question of who the real monsters are.
For that title, it’s hard to beat Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a religious extremist who whips up the crowd with her fire-and-brimstone denunciations and shrieks “Now do you believe?!” after every fresh catastrophe. Her wild eyes ablaze, Harden makes this awful stereotype awfully entertaining, mustering up enough fervor to nearly sell the film’s hideous vision of men and women calling out for blood sacrifices to appease a wrathful God.
As played by Jane, the kind, reasonable, ever-resourceful David is impossible not to root for (he’s a hunky man of action and a sensitive artist!), and more often than not, those characters foolish enough to scorn our hero’s advice are promptly and gruesomely punished. Bumping off the clueless is a time-honored horror tradition; so, too, is the bad-omen makeout scene (enacted here by attractive young’uns Alexa Davalos and Sam Witwer).
Cliches aside, Darabont proves very much in his element during the pic’s harrowing midsection, unleashing large-scale chaos on production designer Greg Melton’s expertly detailed supermarket set and generating unpretentious thrills and laughs along the way. But the film can’t sustain this momentum en route to a highly calculated ending that departs from King’s more ambiguous denouement to mostly shrug-worthy effect.
While most of the supporting cast is hobbled by dialogue of the “I’d rather die out there trying than in here waiting!” variety, Brit thesp Toby Jones and vet Frances Sternhagen do strong character work as sensible, salt-of-the-earth types. Creepy-crawly creature effects, some of which owe an obvious debt to “Alien,” are squirmingly apt.
At just over two hours, “The Mist” is longish for a novella-based thriller but short compared to Darabont’s previous pics.