The Mist: White noise

Rescuing a Stephen King adaptation from the fog

The Mist, director Frank Darabont's latest adaptation of Stephen King, evokes the old saying that society is only three missed meals away from anarchy, and its implication that it doesn't take much to unravel the unifying threads of civilization.

When a sinister mist engulfs a small-town grocery store called the Food House, the problem is not whether the shoppers and staff will have enough to eat, but whether they are going to be eaten. "The Food House" takes on more than one meaning. The Mist gradually unveils a nightmarish menagerie of creepie-crawlies, but Darabont and King encumber the film's genuine thrills with some heavy-handed thematic ballast.

Following a severe electrical storm and power outages in a Maine resort town, a microcosm of American citizens, including blue-collar locals and wealthier out-of-towners, descend on the grocery store to stock up. The unearthly mist enshrouds the store, accompanied by an earth tremor, and soon the store is under siege from lethal, ravenous entities. After a freaky attack in the store room, some dumbstruck witnesses announce, "We saw tentacles."

With no electricity or phone signals, the shocked, isolated citizens begin to balkanize. The brave, sensible side includes Thomas Jane's concerned dad, Laurie Holden's open-minded schoolteacher, Frances Sternhagen's feisty librarian and Toby Jones' assistant manager – whose unexpected heroism provides one of the film's most appealing qualities. Andre Braugher's big-city lawyer rallies the jerky skeptics who refuse to admit the gravity of the situation, while religious nutjob Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) preaches that the mist marks the end times, and that "expiation" with blood might lead to salvation.

The Mist presents a dilemma of skin-crawling fascination. Held at bay by an all-enveloping blankness, the ordinary people stand surrounded by the bland artifacts of consumer culture, like the dog-food bags that provide barricades, or makeshift torches of mops and lighter fluid. The set pieces can be almost painfully suspenseful – like the fraught "expedition" to the pharmacy across the parking lot for medical supplies – although Darabont has a tendency to linger the camera too long on the icky gore and nonhuman "cast members." What we don't see, or barely see, is spookier than what's in clear focus.

But Darabont and King spend too much time trying to make us scared of the enemy within. King published the novella in 1980, and Darabont reportedly tried to make The Mist in the late 1990s before going on to direct the Oscar-nominated King tales The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Nevertheless, The Mist offers a stinging commentary on the contemporary political climate and proves a surprisingly kindred spirit to such angry films as In the Valley of Elah.

Attacking military arrogance as a source of the mist, the film draws up battle lines between the "good" characters (frequently defined by book learning) on one side and the devoutly religious or poorly educated on the other. Mrs. Carmody even mentions "stem cells" as a sign of the permissive, sinful culture. King frequently goes after such political or social heavies in his work, and sometimes the novelist can be nearly as manipulative, judgmental and inclined to violence as Mrs. Carmody. One character slaps Mrs. Carmody in the face, another throws a can of peas at her head for cheap applause. I found myself missing sympathetic Father Callahan from Salem's Lot.

The Mist's final scenes diverge drastically from its source, in ways that manage to be at once more and less optimistic than King's novella. Darabont's new ending may provide a little balance, suggesting that even the most reasonable people may make bad choices in desperate times. That perspective, along with some wildly imaginative monster scenes and sympathetic performances (with Atlanta stage actors Brandon O'Dell and Tiffany Morgan in small roles) go a long way to redeem The Mist. Otherwise, the film would be lost in a self-righteous fog.