In times of darkness, are you driven by hope or fear? Such is the key question at the heart of Frank Darabont‘s 2007 monster masterpiece, The Mist. Adapting from the Stephen King novella of the same name, Darabont crafted a none-too-thinly-veiled sociopolitical allegory exploring the depths of darkness inherent in mankind and how eager we are to rip each other to shreds when fear and desperation overtake hope and reason. It’s a tropey concept, to be sure. It’s Lord of the Flies. It’s Dawn of the Dead. The genre fiction has never shied away from telling us that man is the real monster, but few filmmakers have tackled the subject with such unbridled, downright ballsy ferocity as Darabont did in The Mist.
In Darabont’s own words, he “was in something of a mean mood” when he wrote the film. A longtime passion project for the filmmaker, The Mist was in the works for over a decade and by the time it finally came together. By then, America was in the thick of Bush-era political discord and Darabont was “pissed off at the world”. The result is a film that’s equal parts delightful B-movie monster horror, inspired by the Harryhausen-era drive-in creature features of yore (do yourself a favor and watch the gorgeous black and white cut), and “a wounded, angry cry,” inspired by the strife and enmity that dominated the discourse of that era.
The entire film is a visceral excavation of the best and worst (mostly worst) of human instinct, but that cry was never more wounded, more angry, and more downright gutsy than in the film’s infamous final minutes, which have earned The Mist an enduring reputation as one of the bleakest movies ever made. Darabont had previously helmed two major, crowd-pleasing King adaptations (in addition to his short spin on The Woman in the Room), and while he took some liberties with both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, it was with The Mist that he restructured the source material into something much nastier, but also more resonant. “Scare people badly enough and they’ll do anything,” The Mist warns, then it shows us a microcosm of all the hideous ways that can be true.
For most of the film’s run, Darabont remains a loyalist to King’s novella — he expands the characters, fills in the details, and significantly ups the monster mayhem, but the result is one of the most tonally faithful adaptations of King’s work ever put on film. Set in a small New England town (it’s King, after all), The Mist follows a band of citizens holed up at the local grocery market after a thick mist rolls into town with a menagerie of deadly, otherworldly creatures in tow. Sure, the folks trapped in the market have enough food and supplies for all of them to survive a long stay, but they’re locked in with hostile, rumor-mongering townsfolk and the veneer of neighborliness quickly disintegrates, leaving a stew of resentment, fundamentalism and frantic scapegoating in its place. Things escalate quickly — and when I say escalate, I mean child sacrifice (expiation!) — and in the end, our dwindling team of still-rational heroes is forced out of the “safety” of the market for one last-ditch attempt at survival.
In King’s novella, they drive out into the mist in search of a safe haven that may or may not exist. The infinite expanse envelops them but it never drowns out hope. “Hope”, in fact, is the text’s final parting word. In the movie, however, Darabont’s “mean mood” bleeds through and hope is lost. Our heroes give up, they give into fear, and in doing so they inflict upon themselves a fate tenfold more horrifying than any lobster-clawed beastie or blood-thirsty bible-thumper. The statute of limitations has long expired on spoilers for The Mist, but King himself, a vocal fan of Darabont’s revised ending, described it as “the most shocking ending ever,” and said, “there should be a law passed stating that anybody who reveals the last 5 minutes of this film should be hung from their neck until dead.” So yeah, I’m not going to spoil it. Suffice it to say, it’s the kind of ending that can keep films from getting made, and in fact, Darabont had to choose between a bigger budget or keeping the ending intact.
It left audiences stricken. The ending is often described as a gut punch, I’d say it’s more of a kick in the balls – the worst pain you’ve ever felt mixed with curdling nausea. And to take this unseemly metaphor a little farther, getting kicked in the balls is a biological “teachable moment”. It’s nature’s way of preserving fertility, i.e. the survival of the human race. With The Mist‘s tragic ending, Darabont wants to impart a similarly agonizing lesson. It’s his dark answer to The Shawshank Redemption, which is about the value of hope. The Mist is about the cost of losing it, and in turn, it’s about the fact that it’s not just man who might be the monster, it’s you. When common sense gives way to panic, when you let fear blot out your reason, you run the risk of being guilty of an unforgivable act you would have sworn was the right thing to do.
It’s a nasty trick and one that took me multiple viewings to fully process, but it’s also why the film is stuck like a burr in my mind a decade later. Doubly so in recent years as we’ve found ourselves locked in another round of political turmoil, this time even more heated and confounding than that which inspired Darabont. We live in a time when the truth itself is up for debate, and there’s no shortage of screaming Mrs. Carmodys to fill our heads with hatred. But there’s also no shortage of David Draytons, so certain they know they know the right path when a saner one lies just ahead. The mist itself is pure allegory; an amorphous, inexplicable portent of doom that bleeds into and overtakes reality, fogging sanity as easily as windows. It’s the fear of the unknown and the unknowable. In King and Darabont’s narrative, the mist brings in behemoth Lovecraftian monsters and insectoid terrors. In life, it’s war, it’s radical Islamic terrorism, it’s a failing job market, the loss of health care, and countless other real-life horrors that, like Darabont’s monsters, are absolutely deadly on their own but spur on even greater destruction when we let fear and panic determine how we deal with them.
It’s as relevant today as it was a decade ago, perhaps even more so, but the real kicker is when you realize it’s going to be relevant forever. After all, “as a species, we’re fundamentally insane.” Even so, if there’s something The Mist teaches us, it’s that the cost is too high to ever give up hope.