“As a species we’re fundamentally insane.” | The Mist (2007)

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An eerie mist descends upon a quiet Maine town. Before long it is discovered that the mist is populated with nightmarish monsters, trapping a group of townspeople inside their local supermarket. Once trapped inside, however, it turns out that the biggest threat to their survival may not be the creatures in the mist at all – but rather the other people trapped inside with them.

“The Mist” was originally a 1980 novella by horror author Stephen King, first published in the multi-author anthology Dark Forces. After an edit it was republished in King’s own short story collection Skeleton Crew in 1985. In 2007 it was adapted into a full-length feature film, written and directed by Frank Darabont.

It is one of the bleakest and most memorable horror movies in American cinema history. It was not a significant commercial hit upon release, but like Darabont’s earlier Stephen King adaptation The Shawshank Redemption it found its audience over time. Every passing year seems to raise its profile as more and more viewers discover its exceptional merits. I honestly believe that, much like John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing, The Mist is a horror movie that is only going to rise in critical acclaim as time goes on.

The FictionMachine essays are presented on the assumption that the reader has already seen the film upon which each essay is based, and therefore knows the story of that film already. In the case of The Mist, it is worth emphasising that this essay will discuss specific details of the film’s narrative – including its ending – and I implore you to go and watch the film before reading much further.

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Stephen King’s works have gone hand-in-hand with Hollywood for almost as long as he has been a successful author. The first film to be based on his work was Brian De Palma’s 1976 hit Carrie, and that was followed by The Shining (1980), and ultimately by many more films, miniseries and television dramas. At the time of writing in late 2016, more than 50 feature films alone have been made out of King’s novels, novellas and stories.

By the late 1970s King had decided to actively support up-and-coming filmmakers with the idea of ‘dollar babies’. If a student filmmaker wanted to adapt one of his stories into a short film, he would let them do so under two conditions: firstly, that the screen rights would cost one dollar, and secondly, that the resulting film only be screened at film festivals. Most of these ‘dollar baby’ films were screened once or twice and then slipped into obscurity. The one exception is The Woman in the Room, a 1983 short film that was so well received it made the long-list for the Best Live-Action Short Film Academy Award.

The writer/director behind that short was Frank Darabont.

Frank Darabont was born in a French refugee camp in 1959, after his parents had successfully fled from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. His family moved to the United States while he was still an infant.

Darabont was always interested in cinema. As a teenager he worked as a cinema usher in Los Angeles. After finishing school he found work as a production assistant on cheap independent films such as Trancers, The Seduction, and Hell Night. He was 24 when he wrote and directed The Woman in the Room. Three years later, in 1986, he sold his first screenplay: Black Cat Run. It would not actually be produced until 1998.

Darabont’s major break as a writer came in 1987, when he and director Chuck Russell re-wrote the screenplay to the horror sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street III: The Dream Warriors. Their script successfully shifted the franchise away from pure horror and towards a more populist blend of horror, fantasy and comedy. The Dream Warriors was a hugely profitable film for New Line Pictures, grossing almost $45 million alone in the USA from a $4.5 million budget.

Darabont leveraged the success of The Dream Warriors into a lucrative Hollywood writing career. He and Chuck Russell collaborated on a remake of The Blob (1988), and Darabont also wrote The Fly II (1989) and contributed to screenplays for The Rocketeer (1991) and an unproduced sequel to Commando (1985). For television he worked on George Lucas’ ambitious historical series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and from there he was contracted to write a screenplay for a potential fourth Indiana Jones feature. While that film was eventually produced as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008, it was only partly based on Darabont’s work and he did not receive an on-screen credit.

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When it came to making his feature-directing debut, Darabont originally assumed he would stick to the horror genre. Having received such positive feedback from King for The Woman in the Room, Darabont approached him again in 1987 in the hopes of getting the chance to shop another adaptation around the Hollywood studios. He read through the author’s shorter works and settled on two novellas that he felt would make the most interesting films: “The Mist” and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”. With King amenable to letting Darabont work with his material again, Darabont ultimately selected the latter novella for his directorial debut: a non-horror drama that just happened to be written by a horror author.

It took another seven years for The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont shortened the title) to get produced. In the meantime Darabont kept busy, directing the made-for-television film Buried Alive in 1990 as well as continuing to write screenplays.

It was ultimately Castle Rock Entertainment that produced Shawshank. The production company was co-founded by director Rob Reiner, and was named after the fictional town in several of Stephen King’s novels and stories. Reiner himself had already directed two feature films adapted from King’s fiction: Stand by Me (1986, which was based on the short story “The Body”) and Misery (1990). At first Reiner intended to direct Shawshank himself, casting Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford in the lead roles. Despite an offer of $2.5 million for his screenplay, Darabont successfully held firm on directing it himself. The film was released in September 1994, starred Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.

The character-based uplifting drama of Shawshank provided Darabont with what he described as ‘a much classier kind of perception of me than I had actually intended.’[1] While under-performing in cinemas, the film was subsequently nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Morgan Freeman, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Darabont himself. It has since gone on to become of the most acclaimed Hollywood dramas of its decade. At the time of writing users of the Internet Movie Database have ranked it the single-best film of all time.

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Having completed The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont immediately returned to “The Mist”. In March 1996 he informed Entertainment Weekly’s Tom Russo that it was indeed going to be his next film.[2] He ultimately demurred, however, instead selecting another King work: the serialised novel The Green Mile. ‘There’s something about Stephen’s voice as a storyteller that always resonated with me,’ said Darabont. ‘His work speaks to me; his characters speak to me. He’s a master storyteller, and his stuff just knocks me out. It inspires me to want to get behind the camera.’[3]

The Green Mile continued Darabont’s working relationship with Castle Rock Entertainment. It was released in 1999 and starring Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan and David Morse. The film was a critical and commercial smash hit, grossing close to US$300 million worldwide and receiving four Oscar nominations including a second Best Adapted Screenplay nod for Darabont.

Darabont’s third film as director was less successful: the Frank Capra-esque The Majestic in 2001. The film starred Jim Carrey as an amnesiac Hollywood screenwriter who had been blacklisted from the industry following a McCarthy hearing. Critics were unkind and audiences stayed away; the film crossed just $US37 million from a US$72 million budget.

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It was six years before Darabont returned to directing. Almost 20 years after first considering making an adaptation of “The Mist”, and a decade after he purchased the screen rights from King, Darabont signed a deal with Dimension Films to write and direct the film. Speaking of his three collaborations with King, Darabont noted: ‘Luckily he digs what I do. It seems like a pretty good companionship there in terms of material and director.’[4]

For those viewers only familiar with Darabont’s directorial works, The Mist initially seemed a surprising career twist: three worthy dramas, followed by a bleak, miserable horror movie. When considered alongside his numerous horror screenplays in the 1980s, it seems a much more logical choice. His producer Denise Huth remarked: ‘People who only know Frank from the films he’s directed are shocked that he wants to do a horror film, but once you get to know him it’s more shocking that he’s never done one before.’[5]

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Of the short story Darabont said: ‘It always struck me as a kind of timeless story. It’s what I call the Lord of the Flies paradigm: you put people into a pressure-cooker of fear and terror, you shake ‘em up and you see what they do.’[6]

The Mist is a film almost entirely set within the confines of a small-town supermarket named Food Barn. A group of assorted locals are in the Food Barn when a thick mist envelops the town, and when it becomes clear that carnivorous monsters roam the grey and featureless world outside the residents become trapped without any sign of escape. Social order, even in microcosm, begins to collapse. Certain members of the group struggle for power, and the biggest threat to their safety rapidly escalates to becoming the other people rather than the monsters.

It is an incredible basis for a horror picture, since it essentially provides double the danger. Protagonist David Drayton cannot leave the store, because he will be in mortal peril. The longer he stays, however, the more likely it is that the situation inside will turn to violence and he will be in mortal peril anyway.

It is an approach that requires a high standard of actor, and thankfully Darabont brought an outstanding and hugely talented cast onboard to bring The Mist to life.

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In the lead role of artist David Drayton, Darabont cast Thomas Jane. Born Thomas Elliot III, Jane selected his stage name based on the Jain religion in India, where he made his first on-screen role in the film Padamati Sandhya Ragam. He subsequently developed a solid career playing key supporting roles in Hollywood movies, including The Crow: City of Angels (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), The Thin Red Line (1998) and Magnolia (1999). In 2004 he played the title role in the Jonathan Hensleigh action film The Punisher.

Regarding being cast as David Drayton, Jane said: ‘It was one of the rare, rare occasions that a great screenwriter like Frank Darabont just sends me a script out of the blue and says, “Read this, I want you to play the lead.” Y’know, me getting sent scripts and getting asked to read something and being told they want me to play the lead is nothing new. That happens a lot. But when it’s a script as good as The Mist and it’s Frank Darabont directing, that doesn’t happen often to me.’[7]

‘With any story,’ Jane said, ‘especially a horror story or genre story – you look for really well drawn characters that can take you through what could otherwise be just a paint-by-numbers exercise, which is what ninety nine per cent of genre movies are. The ones like The Mist, that invest in real characters and understand how to tell a story through characters, are the ones that succeed.’[8]

Drayton acts as a viewpoint for the audience, and he correspondingly appears in the overwhelming majority of scenes. He is also deliberately written as an ordinary person. He does not have specialist training, and he is not any more intelligent or educated than the average adult American. This presentation of a near-banal everyday person is a signature technique of Stephen King’s, since it helps to accentuate the manner in which supernatural or uncanny elements puncture the normal world. Such a character presents a challenge to many actors, however, since they tend to lack the quirks and distinctive elements upon which a performance may be developed. Thomas Jane does an outstanding job of portraying David. He does not simply feel ordinary; he feels real.

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Laurie Holden plays Amanda Dumfries, a local school teacher trapped alongside David in the Food Barn. Holden had previously worked for Frank Darabont on The Majestic, and had also appeared in Fantastic Four (2005) and Silent Hill (2006). Between 1996 and 2002 she played the recurring role of Marita Covarrubius in the popular television drama The X-Files.

Andre Braugher plays Brent Norton, an arrogant out-of-town lawyer whose summer house is located next door to David’s home. Norton’s self-confident demeanour and paranoia that locals are treating him like a foolish outsider help to make him an early antagonist for David: while David witnesses the creatures that lurk inside the mist, Norton is the sceptical voice that refuses to believe such outlandish claims.

Like Thomas Jane, Braugher had established a lengthy career playing key supporting roles in American films. His past appearances included Glory (1989), Primal Fear (1996), City of Angels (1998) and Frequency (2000). From 1993 to 1998 he played the role of Detective Frank Pembleton in the widely acclaimed television drama Homicide: Life on the Street, for which he was award a Best Actor Emmy Award.

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The use of Norton as an early foe for David helps to obscure the film’s biggest threat: Mrs Carmody, an eccentric middle-aged woman and devout Christian played by Marcia Gay Harden. As the situation grows dire, Carmody begins to claim the mist and its inhabitants are a divine punishment by God, and that they herald the end of the world. As creatures begin to attack and people start to die, more and more people believe her deluded rantings.

‘It was fantastic to play this lady,’ said Harden. ‘I bought this book called The Idiot’s Guide to Revelations because a lot of her speak is “Bible speak”. I wanted it to be as real as it could be, so that when I talked about the Four Horsemen, I could be real with it.’[9]

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Prior to commencing photography on The Mist Darabont took up the opportunity to direct several episodes for the police television drama The Shield, which used a lot of documentary-style hand-held photography as its house style. Playing within that format enabled him to develop a fresh shooting style for The Mist.

‘I realised how potentially instructive The Shield could be for me with The Mist,’ said Darabont. ‘And it was such a success for me that I wound up doing the Hitchcock thing: I took their cinematographer, two camera operators, their editor and the script supervisor that had done my episodes and did it literally during the show’s six-week hiatus.’[10]

The fast shooting pace and rough, hand-held photography energised Darabont. ‘This has allowed me to throw everything that I know out the door and try on a different hat as a filmmaker,’ he said. ‘It’s fun and it’s fast – it’s not a precise, measured thing. You’re not overthinking anything; you’re just going on instinct. It was liberating, and I loved it.’[11]

By all accounts the actors worked well with the semi-improvisational camera work. ‘I did six years of this on Homicide,’ noted Andre Braugher. ‘I’m very familiar with a camera that can’t quite make up its mind what it wants to shoot.’[12]

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Principal photography commenced on 20 February 2007 on a six-week schedule. Shreveport Louisiana stood in for Stephen King’s fictional Maine town, with the supermarket interior constructed on a soundstage at the local StageWorks production facility. Due to the handheld nature of the photography, the supermarket set with fully constructed as if real. Companies donated stock to fill the shelves of the store in return for product placement in the finished film. A second soundstage housed the supermarket loading dock and the chemist next door; one set replaced the other during production.

The film’s various creatures and monsters were developed by designer Greg Nicotero of effects firm KNB with feedback from Darabont and assistance from noted horror artist Bernie Wrightson. A small group of concept artists assisted in refining the look of the various beasts, including Michael Broom, Tristan Shane and Aaron Sims. The visual effects for the film were primarily handled by CaféFX, with Darabont having been impressed by their prosthetics and puppetry work in Guillermo Del Toro’s 2006 hit Pan’s Labyrinth. An ability to work within a tight budget was a key requirement in the appointment of CaféFX: The Mist’s visual effects budget was only four million dollars.

Darabont’s screenplay included a prologue sequence, in which a military experiment to reach another dimension results in the titular mist being unleashed across the town. ‘The idea,’ said make-up effects supervisor Everett Burrell, ‘was the military had opened a portal to another world. They had a bathysphere about to enter, lightning zapped the generators and the mist broke out. They started building the set at an abandoned National Guard armoury. Physical effects was planning a system of air cannons to shoot mist and glass out when it exploded. As we got closer to shooting, we ran out of time and money, so the scene was cut.’[13]

The failure to produce the prologue sequence actually works in The Mist’s favour. Instead the film begins with David Drayton at home by the lake.

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This first scene establishes David as an artist who hand-paints movie posters. It is a neat profession for his character to have: it is a light nod to The Mist’s pulp horror roots, and it indicates David is a normal suburban man without any particular skills or talents that might come in use during an apocalypse.

David’s artwork was all the work of noted film poster artist Drew Struzan. In the background several of Struzan’s original art works can be seen including posters for The Thing and Pan’s Labyrinth. The work David is painting when the film begins is of Stephen King’s multi-novel saga The Dark Tower.

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That night there is a storm. The morning afterwards David’s studio window is damaged, and a tree belonging to his neighbour Brent Norton has destroyed David’s boathouse. David and his wife notice a strange mist billowing down from the mountains onto the lake: it is an ominous moment, since as the viewer we know the film’s title and genre. The Draytons remain curious but unafraid.

David takes his son into town to purchase goods from the local Food Barn, reluctantly giving a lift to Norton. The scene establishes the antagonistic relationship between the two, one that is covered by just a thin veneer of civility. Once at the supermarket, the tension slowly ratchets up as Darabont continues to deny the audience any sudden dramatic moment or reveal. Three soldiers enter the supermarket, each nervously racing to buy some supplies before they can catch a bus out of town. They know something is going terribly wrong, and are counting the minutes until they can escape from harm’s way. A military police officer catches them, and warns them to get on the army bus outside.

The key soldier among the three is a Private Jessup, played by Sam Witwer. Jessup was an entirely new character, added by Darabont as a means of expanding the story for the big screen and to allude mist’s origin. At the time Witwer was best known for playing Lt Crashdown in the popular science fiction TV series Battlestar Galactica, but had also appeared in ER, JAG, Dark Angel and Dexter.

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Suddenly a man runs into the store, bleeding from the head, warning of creatures coming out of the mist. The mist immediately follows, billowing over the town and enveloping the supermarket. It is a profoundly unsettling moment.

The bleeding man, named Dan, was played by Jeffrey DeMunn. DeMunn was a regular player in Darabont’s films, having previously co-starred in The Blob, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Majestic. Darabont would subsequently cast DeMunn as Dale Horvath in the television series The Walking Dead.

To achieve the illusion of a mist-filled car park outside the Food Barn, a forced-perspective set was erected on the other side of the supermarket’s front window and filled with a glycol-based mist. The use of a practical effect not only saved the production a lot of money – the number of CG shots required when an entire wall of the set was a window would have been unachievable – but also provided the cast with a physical mist against which they could properly react.

A man disregards Dan’s warnings, leaves the Food Barn, and is immediately killed by some unseen monster. There is an immediate panic: the first hint of the real dangers David and his companions will face by the end of the film.

One panicky shopper (Melissa McBride) insists she has to go home through the mist: she left one young child supervising the other, and is concerned for their safety. David in particular urges her to reconsider, to no avail. When no one volunteers to go with her, the woman leaves the store on her own and vanishes into the mist.

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This early stage of The Mist is a masterpiece of generating tension. A group of strangers are trapped by the mist. They do not know where the mist came from or what it means. They know that monsters lurk inside but they cannot see them. It is almost entirely showcased from David’s perspective, giving it a very limited and personal view of the situation.

One key character to get established in these early scenes is Ollie, a middle-aged shop assistant played by Toby Jones. Jones is a well-established English character actor, although he performs here with a pretty convincing American accent. Jones debuted in Sally Potter’s 1992 film Orlando, and subsequently appeared in a range of films including Ever After (1998), The Messenger (1999), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), and Finding Neverland (2004). In 2006 he gained widespread acclaim for his award-winning performance as Truman Capote in Infamous. Throughout The Mist Ollie stands alongside David as a voice of reason in a sea of growing panic. In Jones’ hands, he becomes one of the film’s most likeable characters.

Also introduced in these early scenes is the elderly resident Irene, played by Frances Sternhagen. A stalwart of American theatre and film, Sternhagen had been performing since 1948 although at the time of The Mist’s production she was likely best known for playing the recurring role of Millicent Carter in the TV drama ER.

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The next crisis comes when the power in the supermarket begins to fluctuate. David finds the power generator is overheating because its external vent has become blocked. While David insists that no one venture underneath the metal roller door to dislodge the obstacle, the store’s bag boy Norm (Chris Owen) cockily volunteers for the job. Egged on by mechanics Jim (William Sadler) and Myron (David Jensen), and with David begging them all to stop, Norm begins to climb under the door and is immediately attacked, mauled and dragged away by a massive set of alien tentacles.

This first real appearance by creatures from inside the mist is hugely effective. For one thing the tentacles seem genuinely alien, unfolding to reveal cruel-looking hooks and mandibles that rip at Norm’s flesh. For another their movements contrast suddenly, from slow undulations to fierce, aggressive strikes. Finally there is a strong sense of horror movie justice about the scene: Norm was warned not to venture outside, and he pays for his arrogance with his life.

Cable-controlled puppet tentacles were used on-set when shooting the scene. These were ultimately replaced by CGI tentacles in post-production, once it became clear that Darabont’s preferred physical movements were not achievable with a practical effect. To simulate Norm’s shoulder being attacked and ripped open, a set of small plastic bags were filled with fake blood and attached underneath Chris Owen’s shirt. An effects worker wearing a green glove and sleeve with small tacks attached to the fingers simply popped the plastic balloons to make the blood spurt out. The CGI tentacle was then overlaid to mask the glove during post-production.

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When told of the monster’s fatal attack, Norton is not only suspicious but actively resentful. He accuses David of collaborating with other townspeople to make a fool out of him. Things get aggressive, leading to a shoving match. It’s quite easy, with the tensions raised in one part of the store, to overlook Mrs Carmody’s insistence that the mist and its unearthly inhabitants are divine retribution from God.

Norton loses his patience entirely, teams up with a group of shoppers, and ventures out into the mist. David convinces one of them to tie a rope around his waist so that those remaining can see how far he goes. Something grabs the rope from inside the mist, and it takes the strength of several men to keep the rope tied in the store. When the rope goes slack, they drag it back: it is tied around only half of the shopper.

This constant obfuscation of the creatures in the mist is an old movie-making trick: for one thing it makes the film cheaper to produce, but for another it allows the audience to imagine all kinds of terrors out in the shadows. The Mist does a particularly great job of it, cleverly showing the gory results of the large predators while denying the audience a view of the predators themselves.

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That night, large alien insects are attracted to the lights emanating from the supermarket. Their arrival upon the shop’s windows is not in itself a significant threat – until a group of much larger bird-like predators smash through the windows in an attempt to eat the insects. The townsfolk panic, and by the time the last of the birds has been killed a cashier has been fatally stung by an insect and one of soldiers has been burned almost to death.

One of the effects team’s greatest challenges in producing the insect/bird attack was in developing computer-generated creatures that could be inserted into the largely improvised handheld photography. The problem was solved with the help of CGI company Crack Creative, who used sound-based technology to track real-life camera movements against pre-prepared computer-generated animation. Full-size puppets were developed to aid the actors in visualising what the attack would look like, while individual props were used for key moments such as David beating one of the birds to death.

Laurie Holden said: ‘I felt like we were very lucky because Greg, who’s amazing, and Everett, they brought out these puppets, and showed us how the mouths worked and how the eyes worked. We really had a very good reference point. So when they took the puppets away and we were looking at dots and pretending to see the monsters, we really knew the size of them and how ferocious they were and if they had eight legs or how many so that was a real gift – the very fact that we had the puppets there on the set.’[14]

‘I think it was kind of a first time for me directing scenes like that,’ said Darabont. ‘“Okay, pretend that the thing is swooping and the thing is chewing.” It was very interesting.’[15]

The insect design was based on electron microscopy of both insects and crabs, with a balance struck between making them look visually insectoid while also largely unfamiliar. For the bird-like animals, the effects and design teams worked to give them strange wings that did not occur in the natural world. ‘We started talking about the X-Wing fighter from Star Wars,’ said Nicotero, ‘and all of a sudden we thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to give the bird two symmetrical pairs of wings, one on the top and one beneath that, forming an X?” The top wings were used for lift, the lower wings were for steering; and when it landed, the back wings folded like a bird, while the front wings moved like a bat.’[16]

After the attack the survivors huddle together and take stock of their situation. Mrs Carmody’s Biblical rantings have become more strident, and she is already gaining active followers who kneel and pray with her.

King’s short story had David and Amanda having sex in the supermarket office during their time trapped there, a plot development that Darabont did not bring over to his film. The writer/director felt that such an act between two characters – each married to someone else – would not be well accepted by a movie-going audience, and would lead to them hating both characters. ‘I’m so not getting away with that on screen,’ he joked. ‘Not even trying.’[17]

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One of the soldiers in the supermarket has been so badly burned during the insect invasion that he requires antibiotics and painkillers to have any chance of survival. The next morning the decision is made to creep across to the chemist next door, and to gather medical supplies. David’s son Billy breaks down and begs his father not to leave the store.

‘He’s a 9 year old kid,’ recalled Darabont, ‘and I don’t remember how many takes I did, 5 or 6 takes or whatever. Each take I asked him to crank it up some more. And he did. He really went to this emotional place where he’s sobbing. That’s not make-up; that’s not him pretending. That’s that kid actually doing what he’s doing.’[18]

Billy was played by Nathan Gamble. Gamble made his screen debut at the age of seven in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel. The Mist was his third feature film performance, following the 2007 comedy Deeply Irresponsible.

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Unlike the Food Barn, the chemist lacks large windows and is a dark, shadowy place. The chemist set was specifically designed and lit to prevent the viewer from properly gauging its size. The aim – which was ultimately quite successful – was to make it an unfamiliar and disorienting place, in order to match the characters’ own apprehension while searching its shelves for medicine.

While in the middle of packing medication, the group stumbles upon several people wrapped up and cocooned in webbing. One of them, the military police officer seen in the film’s early scenes, is alive but we can see insects crawling under the surface of his skin. He goes into convulsions, and when the Food Barn group attempt to set him free he falls forward. His body ruptures when it lands, with dozens of spiderlings bursting out of his back.

Greg Nicotero said: ‘I shot the actor falling into a mat. We kept the camera locked off, took the mat away and replaced the actor with a silicone likeness puppet built by Jake McKinnon and Mike McCarty. It was rigged to drop the same way every time. When it landed, pistons broke the back open like a watermelon, with silicone strands and blood attached to the insides. Everett took a composite of the puppet’s back and comped that to the actor, so it all appeared to happen in one shot. CaféFX then added thousands of CG spiders.’[19]

Adult spiders – almost a foot in height each – begin attacking the search party, shooting burning lines of thread from their abdomens that can burn right through clothing, flesh and bone. Not everyone in the party makes it out of the chemist alive. It is a visceral and terrifying sequence, and possibly the most conventional scene of ‘gore horror’ in the entire film.

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When the party returns to the Food Barn, Private Jessup admits that the military used their base up on the mountain to open a portal to another dimension, and that this is where the mist and its inhabitants have come from. Overhearing this admission, Mrs Carmody whips her followers – now comprising most of the survivors in the supermarket – into a frenzy. They stab Jessup in the stomach and throw him forcibly out of the store. As he slams his hands on the doors pleading to be let back in, a massive creature approaches and eats him.

This scene, one of the most uncomfortable in the whole film, sees the threat of Mrs Carmody’s zealotry spill out from a growing background threat into becoming the primary danger of the entire film. If David and his friends leave the store, they are likely to be killed by one of the roaming animals outside. If they remain in the store any longer, they are likely to be sacrificed to appease Carmody’s religious visions. The key danger in The Mist turns out not to be monsters, but simply terrified human beings.

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On the third morning, David and his son, Ollie, Dan, Amanda and Irene make an attempt to flee the supermarket for the safety of David’s car. They are caught in the attempt by Carmody’s followers, and Carmody attempts to have Amanda sacrificed as Jessup was. The confrontation rapidly accelerates until Ollie uses his gun to shoot Carmody dead. She falls Christ-like, in an obvious irony. As soon as she is dead, all of her followers immediately back away. It is a bleak commentary on human nature: the majority will simply follow whatever leader provides the best answers. David and his companions leave them behind, racing through the car park trying to find his car inside the mist.

Throughout the film Darabont treads a bit of a tightrope in regards to Mrs Carmody. She needs to be a genuinely frightening antagonist, and through Marcia Gay Harden’s exceptional performance I think that need is comfortably met. At the same time she needs to be believable, and much of The Mist’s appeal hinges on whether or not the viewer believes that two and a half days in a supermarket surrounded by monsters would provoke a community of two dozen ordinary people to drop their own beliefs and sign up to Carmody’s millenarian hysteria. Despite a few wobbles here and there, I think Darabont sells the idea remarkably well. The monsters in the mist are ultimately just confused animals trying to feed. The real evil in the film is entirely human.

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While running through the car park, Ollie is picked up and killed by an enormous crab-like animal. The giant grab was designed by concept artist Lei Jin at CaféFX. It is the only creature in the film to be designed in-house at CaféFX; the remainder were all developed by concept artists for KNB. At the time of shooting the car park sequence Darabont was running out of time on his six-week schedule. The decision was made to render the spatters of Ollie’s blood on a car windscreen with CGI, to avoid the delays made by having to physically spatter fake blood and then clean it off repeatedly for subsequent takes.

With Ollie gone, David and the others start driving through the mist for as long as the gas in the car will hold out.

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One of the film’s most striking moments comes when a series of earth-shaking tremors cause David to stop the car. A massive alien creature slowly walks past, crossing the road. It is a nightmarish mass of elephantine legs and enormous writhing tentacles.

The giant creature did not feature in Darabont’s original screenplay, but had appeared in King’s novella. It was only inserted after Darabont was persuaded by the visual effects team to include it. ‘Frank didn’t feel that it was dramatically important,’ said Burrell, ‘but Greg and I both felt it was a moment that every Stephen King fan was living for.’[20]

The 300-foot tall creature was designed by Bernie Wrightson based on material provided by Greg Nicolero that included elements of elephants, squid and cockroaches. The inter-dimensional monsters of author H.P. Lovecraft were a specific reference point in developing the creature’s appearance. While Darabont was initially keen to create the creature using models and puppetry, it was ultimately rendered in CGI to save time and money. The entire shot – including the land cruiser containing David and the survivors – was computer-generated.

The car runs out of gas, leaving it stranded in the middle of the road surrounded by mist. There is no visible building to provide shelter. There is no easy way out. Surrendering to the inevitable, the survivors agree for David to take Ollie’s gun – recovered in the chase through the car park – and shoot the other four, starting with his own sleeping son. There are no more bullets for David, who climbs out of the car and waits for the monsters to come and take him.

They never come. Instead the army arrives, destroying the monsters with flame throwers and attack helicopters, and evacuating survivors in trucks. Amanda, Dan, Irene and young Billy died for nothing. Specifically David murdered his own son for nothing. It is here that the film ends, with David screaming on his knees as the trucks drive past. It is relentless, heartbreaking and almost unprecedentedly cruel.

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Darabont said: ‘When that came to me, it just felt like the kind of Twilight Zone ending that really stays with you. You know, “Time Enough at Last”, where Burgess Meredith breaks his glasses – that kind of ending, where you’re like “Oh no, if he’d only waited two more minutes!” I liked the horrendous irony of it. At that time, I was feeling a little bit pissed off at the world. There’s definitely a political element to that movie, which you don’t have to look too hard to see. I was feeling a little angry at the world, and at our country at that time, so it felt like a valid way to end a movie.’[21]

Stephen King was elated with Darabont’s climax. ‘He sent me an email about the ending that I treasure,’ said Darabont. ‘He said if he had thought of that ending he’d have used it in the story.’[22]

The revised ending was the single-largest hurdle in getting The Mist produced at all. No major studio was willing to bankroll the picture unless Darabont agreed to soften the conclusion. Ultimately it was Dimension Films producer Bob Weinstein who made Darabont an offer: change the ending and make the film for $30 million dollars, or keep the ending and make it for $15 million. Darabont chose the latter; after a bit of negotiation the final cost was estimated to be roughly $17 million.

Seeing the army emerge towards David from the mist is more than a gut-punch for the audience. It really is one of the most emotionally harrowing moments in American horror cinema: for an audience that has watched David and his companions fight to survive throughout the film it actually feels sickening. Darabont said that ‘some people love that sensation […] and some people really don’t. I knew going in that that would be a divisive thing, but some of my favourite movies were.’[23]

Among the hollow-faced survivors in the army trucks is the panicky shopper from the film’s early scenes, with both children in her arms. Had David gone with her from the beginning, both he and his family might have survived. It’s a particularly cruel twist of the knife in an already horrifying scene. Her survival denies horror film logic: no one should go into the mist, and she is the first to defy that command and is not seem again. The traditional horror movie trope dictates that she should be dead, and her return here continues the climax’s process of turning audience expectations on their head.

mist020

The Mist is many things. For one thing it is a marvellous monster movie, boasting some wonderful and quite traditional horror moments. Acknowledging its classical horror film roots, Darabont produced an alternate version of The Mist for home video that was presented entirely in black and white. At the same time it is a remarkably dark comment on the fragility of human civilization and the ultimately cruelty of human nature. The genius of the film is that it works so effectively as both. As for Darabont himself, he once explained: ‘What this is about it’s about fear. It’s fear, and it’s about what does fear compel people to do, especially when you throw people into the dark and scare the shit out of them as this character says at one point. You take all the rules away, then what? How primitive do people get? It’s Lord of the Flies that happens to have some cool monsters in it.’[24]

 

[1] Quoted in The Mist production notes, Dimension Films, 2007.

[2] Tom Russo, “Frank Darabont’s next work”, Entertainment Weekly, 15 March 1996.

[3] Quoted in The Mist production notes, Dimension Films, 2007.

[4] Rachel Sandor, “Director Frank Darabont and the cast on The Mist: The RT interview”, Rotten Tomatoes, 20 November 2007.

[5] Quoted in The Mist production notes, Dimension Films, 2007.

[6] John Patterson, “The human race is insane”, The Guardian, 27 June 2008.

[7] Will Harris, “Thomas Jane”, AV Club, 30 September 2011.

[8] Quoted in The Mist production notes, Dimension Films, 2007.

[9] Rachel Sandor, “Director Frank Darabont and the cast on The Mist: The RT interview”, Rotten Tomatoes, 20 November 2007.

[10] John Patterson, “The human race is insane”, The Guardian, 27 June 2008.

[11] Quoted in The Mist production notes, Dimension Films, 2007.

[12] Quoted in The Mist production notes, Dimension Films, 2007.

[13] Joe Fordham, “Everett Burrell & Greg Nicotero on The Mist”, Cinefex 112, January 2008.

[14] Rebecca Murray, “Behind the scenes of The Mist based on a Stephen King story”, About Entertainment, last updated 29 October 2015.

[15] Rebecca Murray, “Behind the scenes of The Mist based on a Stephen King story”, About Entertainment, last updated 29 October 2015.

[16] Joe Fordham, “Everett Burrell & Greg Nicotero on The Mist”, Cinefex 112, January 2008.

[17] Rebecca Murray, “Behind the scenes of The Mist based on a Stephen King story”, About Entertainment, last updated 29 October 2015.

[18] Julia Merriam, “Frank Darabont (The Mist) interview”, Classic-Horror.com, 30 July 2008.

[19] Joe Fordham, “Everett Burrell & Greg Nicotero on The Mist”, Cinefex 112, January 2008.

[20] Joe Fordham, “Everett Burrell & Greg Nicotero on The Mist”, Cinefex 112, January 2008.

[21] Nick Shager, “MVPS of Horror: The Mist director Frank Darabont on the shocking ending to his haunting Stephen King adaptation”, Yahoo! Movies, 27 October 2016.

[22] Quoted in The Mist production notes, Dimension Films, 2007.

[23] Jeremy Smith, ‘Mr Beaks gets to the end of The Mist with Frank Darabont”, Ain’t It Cool, 30 July 2008.

[24] Rebecca Murray, “Behind the scenes of The Mist based on a Stephen King story”, About Entertainment, last updated 29 October 2015.

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