NEW YORK—It didn’t matter that Frank Darabont’s two previous film adaptations of Stephen King novels—“The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile”—had grossed more than $300 million and amassed 11 Oscar nominations (including two for Best Picture) between them.
When Darabont started shopping his latest script based on a King tale—specifically “The Mist,” a longish short story published in the 1981 anthology “Dark Forces,” about a mysterious mist that harbors an assortment of freaky monsters—the director couldn’t find any takers.
“There were many studios that said `Are you nuts?’ We can’t make this movie!’” Darabont says, laughing. “There were even a couple of people who wanted to do it and offered me a certain budget—more than twice what I ended up making the movie for—but with a string attached: I had to change the ending.”
And then it was Darabont’s turn to say “No, thanks.” The ending of “The Mist” was shrouded in utmost secrecy before a single frame of film was shot. Even some of the actors cast in the film had to beg and plead before they were allowed to read the last few pages of Darabont’s screenplay, which adds a new, devastating wrinkle to King’s original, open-ended finale.
“I had to do quite a lot of burrowing before I was allowed to read the ending,” said Toby Jones, the British actor best known for playing Truman Capote in “Infamous” who co-stars as a supermarket manager in “The Mist.” “I had read the short story and thought it very curious, because a supermarket with wide, brightly lit corridors and lots of people is not the kind of place you would expect horror to happen. And the non-ending of the story was intriguing, because it felt very incomplete.
“But because of how Frank ends the film, I think it would be very strange if a member of the audience came out of this film and didn’t need to talk about it,” Jones said. “Usually with horror films, you can tolerate pretty much anything, because you know everything will work out at the end. But this one deliberately makes you ask yourself `What have you just been watching? What do you think about what you’ve been watching? And what have you tolerated?’”
There’s no “Crying Game” or “Sixth Sense”-style twist at the finale of “The Mist.” A big part of the film’s appeal is its straightforward, old-school, creature-feature premise, in which a group of characters—a father (Thomas Jane) and his young son (Nathan Gamble), their neighbor (Andre Braugher), a schoolteacher (Laurie Holden), a religious fanatic (Marcia Gay Harden) and a soldier (Sam Witwer)—stranded inside a supermarket by the mist must fend off the deadly critters that emanate from its depths.
On one level, the movie is a monster romp by way of “The Twilight Zone”—what is the mist, anyway, and where did it come from?—and it is given gravity and weight by the way in which Darabont shot it. Instead of the classical widescreen elegance of “The Green Mile” and “Shawshank,” the director employed a ragged, documentary-like style, using hand-held cameras, realistic lighting and little to no musical score to ground the farfetched scenario in an aura of reality. The relatively short six-week shooting schedule and low budget ($17 million secured from Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films) also lent itself to the no-frills approach.
“It was an aesthetic I wanted to use because I felt the more outlandish a premise is, the better off we are taking it very seriously,” said Darabont, who directed two episodes of TV’s “The Shield” last season to practice the guerrilla approach (and wound up hiring that show’s director of photography and two camera operators to work on the film). “I really wanted audiences to believe the circumstance. There’s a certain suspension of disbelief when a monster shows up at the window. But if you believe the people inside, you can accept it all.”
So despite all the monsters slithering about in “The Mist”—both of the computer-generated and rubber-and-latex variety—it was their human prey that the director fixated on the most. That emphasis was not lost on the actors who wound up signing on for the project.
“When this part came to me, I honestly turned up my nose and thought `Bug Movie’?” said a sneering Harden, who plays the Bible-thumping Mrs. Carmody. “OK, you"re going to be running around screaming, there"s going to be blood on your face and it has to be minutely sexy if you do it, except that I’m not the sexy one, so I’ll probably just look disgusting. So I thought `I don’t want to do that.’
“But then you read the script and you realize what made it compelling was the `Lord of the Flies’ element: How does human nature respond when you’re put into this extraordinarily difficult situation? Mrs. Carmody is a fear-based leader—she doesn’t listen or consider the sinners who are different than her or behave in ways she doesn’t approve of—and fear-based leadership allows people to put aside ethical behavior and commit human atrocity in the name of God, freedom, democracy or safety. It’s a destructive path. And we’re living in it right now, in a way.”
By emphasizing that theme over the typical frights and gross-outs, “The Mist” becomes part of a rarified genre of scary movies born out of a tumultuous point in history, from the giant-monster sci-fi thrillers of the nuclear 1950s to the unthinkably explicit horrors of post-Vietnam chillers such as “The Exorcist” and “Night of the Living Dead.” The connections between those pictures and the eras that spawned them aren’t always immediately recognizable. But it’s impossible not to recognize “The Mist’s” exploration of the unexpected consequences of mass panic as a commentary on contemporary times.
And Darabont’s ending hammers home that theme with a ferocity guaranteed to leave a deep mark on viewers—even those who had spent the previous two hours rolling their eyes at all the tentacles and acid-spewing spiders running about.
“As Shakespeare said, these violent delights have violent ends,” Darabont said. “This is an examination of human behavior under the pressure of fear and people don’t think clearly. They don’t make the right choices. The choices we’re making as a species I think are sending us off a precipice. And if you can’t use horror to say something like that, then where are you going to say that? Yes, you can say it in an overtly political film. We’re seeing some of those coming out now and some of them are quite worthy.
“But horror has always been at its best as a subversive genre where you use it as a context to tell another kind of story and really examine the human condition. `Twilight Zone’ creator Rod Serling did it brilliantly: He was always talking about morality and behavior and holding up a mirror for us to look into. I love it when horror and science fiction do that, and it’s why I always loved this story. It wasn’t so much about the mist outside the windows with the groovy critters in it. It’s about what people are capable of when they are influenced by lack of reason and fear.”
The ultimate testament to the effectiveness of Darabont’s spin on “The Mist” may be the praise it received by King himself. In the past, the author has not been shy about expressing displeasure with movies based on his work. But at a recent press conference to promote the film, King said he loved the new ending.
“It puts a button on it,” he said. “The story has—I won’t say it’s a weak ending, exactly, but it’s the kind of story that my late mother didn’t respect. She called them Alfred Hitchcock endings. You’re kind of left to make up your own mind.”
But King adds that reading the script for “The Mist” was a drastically different experience than watching the finished film.
“The only time I ever wavered even slightly was when I actually saw the movie,” King said. “I thought to myself `This is so shocking that there ought to be ads in the newspaper that say `If you reveal the last five minutes of this movie, you will be hung by the neck until dead.’”
Take that as a warning.