In the one-sided worldview of Hollywood and Stephen King, there are apparently only two kinds of people - those who fear God, and those who fear religion. Those who fear God in this rather bigoted paradigm are all fanatical, intolerant, hate-mongering lunatics who have chosen to believe in the teachings of the Judeo-Christian Bible not out of hunger for spiritual truth or the desire to become better, more compassionate individuals, but out of ignorance and a desire for moral superiority and power. Conversely, all those who fear religion in the Castle Rock/Tinseltown universe are decent, rational, sane people relying on common sense and reason to get by in a cruel and insane world. There is no room in this view for individuals who hold strong religious (that is to say, Christian) beliefs but are still honest, caring people, any more than there is for the notion of people so wholly opposed to the idea of an invisible deity and a set of moral absolutes (that is to say, Christianity) that they are capable of genuine hatred and cruelty toward innocent people. Even with such a fervent imagination, King often seems incapable of grasping or accepting such possibilities, though there are plenty of people who fit those descriptions in our world today. Thus, despite the presence of a plethora of giant CG bugs and beasts in the film adaptation of his novella, THE MIST, the movie's real monsters are a bunch of basically uneducated yokels who immediately begin spewing fire and brimstone, and calling for Old Testament sacrifices, the moment they start getting scared.
Marcia Gay Harden leads the zealous mob, preaching her venomous message of condemnation and expiation virtually non-stop for most of the film's 127 minute running time. It takes those she converts a while to fall in line, and those she condemns even longer to see the trouble coming, but the audience only needs about five minutes to predict the hackneyed outcome of the story and grow completely fed up with the whole business. By the time she's reached full-fledged, cult leader fanaticism toward the end, she is spouting clumsy diatribes about man's defiance of God's will in everything from abortion to walking on the moon, and calling for the blood of an eight-year-old boy to appease "the beast" outside. However by-the-numbers her role, at least she delivers her sermons with a measure of credibility and conviction, which is more than can be said for co-star William Sadler. In the beginning, his drunken hick character is just an idiot. Once he's won over to the side of "righteousness", his slack-jawed, wide-eyed performance borders on the comical. The rest of Harden's bloodthirsty "flock" is as unremarkable as it is cliched.
To be fair, writer-director Frank Darabont (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE) hedges his bets by having Harden proven right, to an extent. Her allegations of man's hubris in the face of the Almighty are borne out when it is revealed that the mist and all of the clawed, tentacled red state allegories in it were unleashed on our world by arrogant military types tampering with dimensional doorways or some such vague, science fiction nonsense. This bit comes from the novella, which leads one to believe that both King and the filmmakers who have helped make him exorbitantly wealthy are of the opinion that the only people actually destined for divine judgment are Christians and government types. Not that the good guys in THE MIST are spared any climactic, "Coffey on the mile" cruelty...
Thomas Jane plays the level-headed (and, presumably, not particularly spiritual) hero of the film, an artist trapped in the grocery store with his young son and the rest of the terrified townsfolk. His character has no real emotional arc to speak of in the narrative, which is perhaps fortunate since his performance runs the gamut from uninteresting to unconvincing. His relationship to his son should be a dramatic lynchpin, but they have so few scenes together (and the moments they do share are so devoid of pathos) once the mist engulfs the store that it's hard to believe that he's even that attached to the kid. Jane never convinces the viewer that he's particularly scared or worried or angry or bereaved, and he certainly never comes across as an effective leader for the desperate survivors holed up in the frozen foods section. In the first half hour he tries to keep the confrontational Andre Braugher and others from leaving the store, only to inexplicably spend the remainder of the film (after Braugher and a small group are eaten alive trying to cross the parking lot) advocating trying to escape. The only time he succeeds in being significantly more sympathetic than the villainous Harden or anyone else in the cast is in the egregiously sadistic and nihilistic final scene (which was not in King's original story). Unfortunately, the sequence goes on for so long and his acting is so overwrought that it's unlikely anyone in the audience will shed a tear.
At this point, some readers are undoubtedly thinking to themselves that I missed the point of the film. "It's not about religious fanaticism," they would argue. "It's about giant monsters in the fog, eating people!" Ostensibly, they're right. The problem is that a movie about people under siege by man-eating monsters should be suspenseful and scary, and THE MIST is neither. With the exception of Harden and a few minor supporting players, the cast rarely manages to convey any credible sense of terror. The narrative is slow-paced and extremely talky, and the emotional conflicts are handled so clumsily by Darabont and company that little tension is built up during the long stretches between creature attacks. When the beasties do come calling, their assaults quickly lose their impact and fluctuate between frustrating and comedic because their would-be victims are incredibly stupid, even by horror film standards. Apparently, the suspense of these scenes is supposed to derive primarily from the characters standing around and gawking at the horrors in front of them instead of doing something - anything - to protect themselves. I generally give people in scary movies a lot of grace, because no one really knows how they would react if a giant spider jumped out of the shadows and ate their best friend's head. However, after the fourth shot or so of Sadler standing stock still and screaming at yet another rampaging arachnid in the same scene, one starts to feel like maybe they're just witnessing natural selection at work. When a guy spends five minutes trying to light a kerosene-soaked mop head on fire only to immolate himself by tripping over the bucket and falling in the accelerant immediately after succeeding, one even begins to root for the big bugs to inherit the Earth.
Ham-fisted social commentary aside, THE MIST had such great potential. Some of the monsters do look very cool, and the basic premise of a small group of people besieged by unseen, flesh-eating monstrosities is a proven formula for horror success. Directors with varying budgets and skill have created some truly timeless masterpieces of celluloid terror with that simple formula, from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to JAWS to TREMORS. Considering the quality of the novella and Darabont's previous King outings, this movie should have been worthy of mentioning in the same breath as those classics. Instead, it is a tedious, preachy, obnoxious exercise in heavy-handed cynicism, wrapped in the superficial trappings of a monster film but devoid of any of the chills or thrills that the genre should provide. When the most effective scare in a horror movie is the sudden crash of a guy accidentally kicking something metal as he stumbles through a dark room, it's clear the filmmakers were spending too much time trying to bludgeon the audience to death with their message and not enough time trying to scare them out of their seats. If you want a King-inspired film about religious fanaticism, watch the chilling classic CARRIE. In fact, you'd be better off renting the mindless but entertaining CHILDREN OF THE CORN than shelling out your money to see this big budget clunker. If you want to see folks trapped in a confined space by a murderous giant, check out CUJO. For that matter, even the moronic MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE delivers more thrills than THE MIST with the same basic ingredients. Even the most impressive computer-generated monsters can't save this leaden-paced, poorly acted movie that expects its audience to fear broad cliches more than bloodthirsty creatures of the night.