For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
The Mist and the Real Horror of Stephen King
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”Stephen King (from the introduction to the 2001 paperback edition of The Shining
This famous quote from the mind that conjured such monsters as Pennywise, Cujo, Christine, Randall Flagg and countless others is the perfect summation of what has made Stephen King’s work endure through the last four decades and counting. It also provides clarity as to why the film and TV adaptations of his work oftentimes miss their mark and land with a thud.
For it’s not the iconography within his work that has allowed him to reside in our psyches for so long. No. What makes King endure is his uncanny ability to create and develop real, relatable characters and then pit them against the evils (supernatural or otherwise) that reside within their fellow human beings. This is what’s most overlooked in adaptations of King’s work, and it’s why Frank Darabont is one of few filmmakers who has proven to understand King’s work on a deeper level.
In 2007’s The Mist, Darabont adapted King’s novella about a group of people sheltered in a small grocery store while their community is enveloped in a mist filled with deadly Lovecraftian creatures. For the film, Darabont utilized the crew of FX’s The Shield (of which he had directed a very pivotal episode) to create a guerilla-style handheld brand of claustrophobic creature horror. When all was said and done in 2007, however, the defining trait of The Mist was in Darabont’s ability to deliver an ending of such notoriety and nihilism that King himself has gone on record saying he wished he’d thought of it.
It’s an incredible entry in the canon of King adaptations and its ending alone is surely one for the books. However, the true horror of The Mist doesn’t come from the shock of the ending. It resides firmly in the interactions among those trapped in the store. As fear takes hold of the small community of shoppers-turned-survivors, doubt is cast, secrets kept, prejudices amplified and the strength of denial weaves a security blanket infested with religious fanaticism.
When a group of men (led by William Sadler’s Jim) allow young bag-boy Norm (Chris Owen) to play the hero with deadly consequences, it becomes a microcosm of toxic masculinity and the power of denial. David (Thomas Jane) lashes out at Jim, who refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. Instead, he shifts blame and claims he didn’t understand what David’s warnings meant. It’s a brilliantly succinct look at a frightened man attempting to shield himself from that which frightens him — all while purporting to be a man in control of himself and his actions through ultimately useless posturing.
This major event happens early in the film and acts to establish the mysterious threat within the mist. How Darabont handles escalating tensions that ensue within the store exemplifies how King’s sense of community (and the conflict inherent) is by far one of his greatest strengths as a writer. When the group attempts to explain what happened to the others in the store, Andre Braugher’s out-of-towner Brent Norton scoffs at them and refuses to listen. Citing the shifty looks he receives and a previous legal rift with David as evidence that they are trying to play him for a fool, Norton helps seal his own fate.
As the film progresses, the survivors’ true adversary reveals herself in classic Stephen King fashion. Marcia Gay Harden’s incredible turn as Mrs. Carmody is the performance on which all of the film’s interpersonal tension hinges. As the self-appointed vessel of God, Mrs. Carmody’s luck at vaguely forecasting events in the store through Old Testament rhetoric and proselytizing to anyone within earshot eventually leads her to gain a misguided and horrific following willing to kill in the name of their God.
This use of characterization to accentuate the creature horror is one of The Mist‘s greatest strengths. However, the same strength also makes it hard to deny the tragic new resonance the film has in light of our current real-life COVID-19 hell. Following months of sheltering in place, social distancing, and wearing masks, a segment of the U.S. population is still defiant. They refuse to take the barest of precautions under the misguided notion that the world’s leading medical professionals are wrong.
To see videos of anti-mask meltdowns by entitled, arrogant people who would gladly risk the health of loved ones and strangers alike to make a statement against basic human decency is to take a frightening peek inside the walls of The Mist‘s Food House. To see groups of maskless people standing outside Walter Reed in support of a U.S. President who contracted a virus by not taking any precautions is to see Mrs. Carmody’s congregation scream “EXPIATION” into the ether. And to witness the mass delusion of people in your community supporting someone who would let them die rather than display any real leadership during a crisis is to see David Drayton and his group’s call for sanity fall on deaf ears.
Of course, viewing The Mist through that prism of 2020’s waking nightmare is bound to have an adverse effect on one’s mental health. But despite that, the film demonstrates the strength of King’s characterization and keen eye for horror steeped in groupthink and mass delusion. Parts feel vaguely prescient in light of COVID-19 and other parts feel like a warning. In the end, it’s what makes King and the horror genre at large so wonderful, in their own morbid way.
However you view it, The Mist holds up well and will cause you to reflect on where we are as a society in this moment. If we’re not careful, I fear the events of our world in 2020 (and, more fearfully, beyond) will continue to reflect the harried and horrific world of King’s Maine by way of Darabont. Of course, a lot remains to be seen. But the film’s ethos and its resonance to our real-life collective trauma can be best summed up with the film’s strongest and most thought-provoking line, as spoken by the delightful Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones):
“As a species, we’re fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?”