The premise of a good survival horror film should be familiar to anyone who had minor sadistic tendencies as a child; put some bugs in a jar, shake ‘em up, and watch the show. This scenario seems implicit in the plot of The Mist, the third collaboration between Stephen King and director Frank Darabont; a man finds himself barricaded in a supermarket with his son and about fifty of his small-town neighbors, with only a few plate-glass windows between them and a rolling mist containing a menagerie of limb-tearing nasties. But while the film boasts the heady tagline of “Fear Changes Everything”, this is not the man’s-inhumanity-to-man fable you might expect from the director of Shawshank Redemption, but instead a survival movie that believes the most horrifying monster of all isn’t mankind, but giant CG bug-things.
While the film starts with a confident, believable look at how people react when a problem from escalates from inconvenient to apocalyptic, before long we're waist-deep in typical creepy cralwer freak-outs, and the discord between humans is relegated to background. What little interperonsal conflict there is is stirred by Marcia Gay-Harden, playing a religious nut so intense she seems like she might have been walking around with a “The End is Near” sandwich-board even before the mist rolled in. The "Piously Insane Woman" is one of King’s specialties (most memorably portrayed by Kathy Bates in Misery), as are the alternately brave and dopey collection of townsfolk who make up the rest of the cast. Visually, Darabont frames these exaggerated archetypes with jerky handheld shots, injecting realism in the cinematography when none exists in the script.
Of course none of this would be a problem if the splatter scenes were interesting enough to sustain the film, and they certainly try. Just about every bug monster related attack you ever learned from Pokemon gets some screen time; String Shot, Poison Sting, and Slash are all featured prominently, and let’s just say they’re Super Effective. There’s even an larvae-in-stomach sequence that would be more horrifying if it didn’t so closely resemble an Aqua Teen Hunger Force gag meant to mock such monster movie clichés. And while there’s a fair amount of energetic dismemberment and even a few gasp-inducing moments of body horror, the tension is diminished by how little you care about the characters. Thomas Jane plays the film's caring father protagonist (though title of "hero" belongs more to the unassuming clerk played by Toby Jones, in the film's most natural performance), and while Jane has an appealing screen presence he's saddled with a character that never aspires to be anything other than decent and bland, and your desire to see him escape with his son is about the same as your desire to see him eviscerated by giant spiders.
The only risk taken in this film comes at the end, where the movie encourages you to forget everything you saw in the last two hours and enjoy what could be mistaken for a five-minute episode of the Twilight Zone. That’s not a bad thing; if nothing else, the out-of-nowhere ballsiness of the ending leaves you with a lasting impression, as it certainly breaks down a few comfort barriers that you'd expect to remain in place, given how by-the-numbers everything that came before was.
AHR's Grade: Solid Hollywood C