There was a time in the early '80s when it seemed every third film unspooling at the local multiplex was a Stephen King adaptation. 'The Shining,' 'Creepshow,' 'Cujo,' 'Firestarter,' 'The Dead Zone,' 'Pet Sematary' -- it was a torrent of films that, if both good and bad, almost always remained profitable. The mad rush was short-lived, however, and by the end of the decade the trend reached absurd proportions as the studios began trotting out even the weakest King stories (both novels and shorts) in their desperate attempt to bank on his name at the box office. 'Cat's Eye,' 'Graveyard Shift,' and 'Maximum Overdrive' (the latter directed by King himself) all bombed both creatively and financially, and by the start of the '90s, it seemed as if the King goldmine had finally dried up.
It's odd, then, that it took so long for 'The Mist' to finally hit the big screen. Originally published as part of King's 'Skeleton Crew' short story collection, it seemed like a natural cinematic adaptation -- compact, self-contained and movie-ready with its photogenic titular evil. But it would only be after many failed attempts, with various filmmakers coming in and out of the project like a revolving door, that frequent King adapter Frank Darabont ('Shawshank Redemption,' 'The Green Mile') re-ignited the project and finally got it on screens in late 2007. Not that the long wait ultimately mattered much -- despite being one of the most highly-anticipated adaptations by King's fans, 'The Mist' nose-dived at the box office and critical notices were mixed at best.
The story of 'The Mist' is certainly potent if not entirely unfamiliar to genre fans. Though bearing a surface similarity to John Carpenter's 'The Fog' (both feature a spectral cloud containing a destructive force that descends on a small, seaside town), King has nothing but potent social allegory on his mind. To ensure there are no spoilers (and this story does have plenty of surprises), I will only say that the mist of the title arrives with no obvious origin and no apparent motive. Trapping a band of survivors in a local convenience store, it isn't so much the mist itself that is the threat, but what's inside -- and to say more will only hamper your enjoyment of the shocks King has in store for us.
King's tale, then, fits the classic horror convention of trapping a band of disparate strangers in an isolated locale, and watching as the panic and fear breaks down what little shared humanity the survivors have between them. That King populates his landscape with archetypes is precisely the point -- it's not so much what the mist does to its victims as what they do to each other that is terrifying, and the best way to dramatize that is with characters we can relate to. King also sets up a clear ethical opposition between the two opposing sides that form in the store, and that will form the crux of his thematic concerns. On one side (and as the clearly intended point of identification for the audience) is David Drayton (Thomas Jane), a local artist and everyman who is practical, pragmatic, and far from religious. On the other is Ms. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a fanatic whose fiery sermons of judgment day and sacrifice will only grow in potency as the mist continues to claim victims. Each will gain strength in numbers, leading to a showdown -- and a moral decision as to whether or not the group should leave the store, or stay -- with implications that seem to achieve near-biblical proportions.
'The Mist' seemed to polarize most viewers and critics upon its release. Some found it more successful as a purely scary and visceral thrill ride, while others admired the social commentary that King and Darabont were none-too-subtle about displaying. I found myself in the latter camp. The escalating tension in the store is palpable, particularly thanks to Harden who, if over-the-top, still manages to make plausible enough religious arguments to exploit the irrational fears of her (captive) audience. It doesn't matter if what she says is ridiculous -- Darabont is smart in allowing us to understand that, in such a situation of abject panic, rationality no longer has much appeal. It's Harden's scenes with Jayne and the fellow survivors that are the most powerful in 'The Mist.'
Unfortunately, I found the mist itself to be far less effective than the emotional havoc it wrecks. I won't ruin any of the film's creature revelations, other than to say the movie boasts some of the worst CGI I've seen in a studio picture in recent memory. They're pretty darn laughable, to the point that when we first start catching glimpses of what's in the mist I was less horrified than mortified that Darabont didn't get a refund on his effects budget. The strength of the film's story and the commitment of the cast almost sells this stuff, but it's ultimately a futile gesture. There's only so much you can do with such patently phony effects.
Then there is the film's controversial ending. Despite the bad CGI, the film remains riveting enough -- and Jayne in particular committed enough as an actor -- that we genuinely care about the fate of the final survivors. Why, then, did Darabont choose to deviate from the climax of King's more open-ended original short story, and deliver one of the most mean-spirited conclusions I've seen in a horror film? It's not so much the darkness of Darabont's choices that I take issue with, but the lack of rhyme or reason to it -- when you see the ending for yourself, it will indeed be hard not to be affected by it. But to what end? It comes off as nihilism for the sake of it rather than as an exploration of the film's previously-stated themes, or at worst, nothing but a cheap sick joke on characters we've been manipulated to care about, and so by extension, a cheap sick joke on the audience.
But it remains to the credit of Darabont, King and 'The Mist' that despite its flaws and the love-it-or-hate-it ending, it at least leaves us debating and asking questions. The term "thinking man's horror film" is too often bandied about, but here it's earned. 'The Mist' at least attempts to be about something, and is as provocative in its button-pushing as it is gleeful in reveling in its affectionately schlocky, B-movie thrills. In that sense, it's a classic drive-in picture with high-gloss credentials, so cheers to Darabont for highlighting -- rather than downplaying -- the complexities in King's original short story. I found 'The Mist' far from perfect, but I'd still take it any day over most of the brain-dead horror films currently glutting cinemas.
'The Mist' hit standard DVD earlier this year in a very unique presentation, with Genius Products and filmmaker Frank Darabont taking the virtually unprecedented step of offering the film in both its original color and newly-produced black & white versions. Like the reverse of colorization, the black & white version was a fascinating experiment in how the tone and perception of a film can be radically altered, with some even preferring it over the original color presentation. Genius again offers this choice on a two-disc Blu-ray set, with the color version sharing a BD-50 dual-layer disc with a variety of extras, while the black & white versions gets its own feature-less BD-25 single-layer presentation. Each is offered as a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.40:1).
I was disappointed with the color version. The original theatrical transfer looks brittle and artificial. Contrast runs noticeably hot even in normal daylight scenes, while colors are oversaturated to compensate. The result are digital-looking fleshtones (which also skew towards pink, rather than orange) and noticeable noise. The print also has some grain (which increases in low-light scenes). There is also some black crush, which lessens shadow delineation. While the transfer is reasonably sharp, it looks slightly over-enhanced, and sporadic shots are quite soft and fuzzy. Depth and visible detail are fine, but nowhere near the best high-def transfers I've seen. 'The Mist' -- at least in color -- just does not impress.
By comparison, I preferred the black & white. The color issues are gone, and contrast better balanced. Though the gray scale tends to flatten out in the midrange, I like the smoothness of the image better here, though there is still grain present. Detail and depth are about comparable to the color, and there is still some loss of shadow detail due to the heavy blacks. Add to that the uniqueness of being able to experience a modern horror film in black & white, and this is a great bonus to 'The Mist' that's worth checking out if only for the novelty value.
(Note: If I was grading the transfers separately, I would award them a 3.0/5.0 for the color, and 3.5/5.0 for the black & white. Given that the disc offers both and allows us the option to choose, I'm going to give it props by rounding up the overall Video to 3.5/5.0.)
Presented in English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48khz/24-bit), along with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (640kbps) options in English, French, and Spanish. The film's sound design is strong and involving, and is the highlight of the technical portion of the disc.
Surrounds are engaging. The suitably (and atypically) eerie score by Mark Isham spills out wonderfully right from the opening frames. Discrete effects are pronounced and full-bodied, with excellent uses of smooth pans between all channels during the monster attack sequences. If there is rarely a true "wall of sound" effect created, the sustain atmosphere is quite effective. Fidelity is sharp and strong, with excellent clarity and dynamics. Dialogue is clean and intelligible, with the front soundstage nicely expansive but words always rock solid in the center channel. I was quite pleased with this TrueHD mix.
Genius has not skimped on its maiden theatrical release on Blu-ray ('The Mist' is hitting stores day-and-date with another recent Stephen King thriller, '1408'). All of the extras from the previous two-disc DVD edition are here, and it's an excellent package. Informative, thorough and slick, the video quality (in full 1080/AVC MPEG-4) is great -- this is ideally how all supplements on Blu-ray titles should look. (All materials include optional English subtitles. Also, note that disc one contains the entirety of the extras, with disc two reserved for the black & white version of the film only.)
'The Mist' is a bit of a mess -- a cool story with fascinating thematic layers, but cursed by terrible CGI and an ending that comes off as nihilistic just for the sake of it. Yet it's a credit to Stephen King that the power of his tale still manages to send shivers despite such faults. This Blu-ray is likewise a mixed bag -- the video rates a disappointment (though the black & white version is pretty sweet), the audio is much better, and the supplements top-drawer. Fans of the film will still find enough here to warrant a purchase, but all others should probably just try it out as a rental first.