Monday, October 6, 2014

October Spook-tacular Playoffs: The Mist

at 6:20 PM
October is always a treat, being that the weather is nice and the theme colors are the Baltimore Orioles colors. This is especially important this year because the Orioles are in the playoffs, which also happens in October! The team will gain a significant advantage by seeing their colors all around the country and on the TV for the Halloween season. This is a big factor in baseball and explains how the Orioles colors were originally chosen.

The only way to celebrate this certain-to-be historical playoff run is... horror movies! I'm going to knock five movies off my queue, one each weekend and one each from the last five decades. Then at the end of October we'll have a little "playoffs" where I choose which was best. I think that's how the World Series works? All of the teams play each other in the same game? Those 8-team innings sure can drag on. Here are the movies.

Halloween (1978)
Parents (1989)
Event Horizon (1997)
The Mist (2007)
The Conjuring (2013)

Title: The Mist
Director: Frank Darabont
Writer: Frank Darabont, based on a novella by Stevie King
Actors I know by name: Thomas "I'm Tom Jane" Jane

While my OCD tells me I should have gone in chronological order, I had already watched The Mist by the time I came up with this idea so it was too late. Plus hey this way I can save Halloween for Halloween.

What I know going in: A mist traps a town indoors and there are monsters out there and didn't I see this movie back in the '80s (before I was born)?

From the moment The Mist cuts in on posters for The Thing, The Dark Tower, and Pan's Labyrinth, I knew we were in for some apocalyptic dimension-hopping shenanigans. That's a good omen for me; weird trans-dimensional shenaniganry is my jam, be it Silent Hill, From Beyond, or H.P. Lovecraft. Simultaneously it was an omen of the on-the-nose cheesiness that permeates the entire movie - the classic King explicit reference. That's this movie - solid premises taken in extremely loud directions. Sometimes the arresting volume is satisfying - a stormy opening punctuated by a tree bursting into our protagonist's home, angrily foreshadowing monsters that pierce the dimensional window into our world. Other times it's pandering, like the repetition of the line "something's in the mist!". It also ranges into frustrating, as my reaction to faux-Biblical rant #847 can testify. However stylized it may be, the material sticks to core themes of faith and despair in the face of the unknown - my only real objection is how those questions are resolved.

I probably should expect obnoxiousness from Darabont and King, the creative team behind the most painfully cloying and obvious "classic" of our time, The Shawshank Redemption. The Mist has a lot of wowing "what is a man?" moments, from the illogically blustering lawyer neighbor to the burn victim begging for death to a crowd silently staring down a mother begging for help finding her children. There's this general suggestion that people are acting extra psycho (i.e. hammy) because that's what fear does; the dialogue is extremely on the nose in pointing out "they're scared", "it's okay to be scared", etc. While this gels with the movie's theme of fear as the root of faith, dialogically it has the awkward repercussion of feeling like an excuse for exaggerated characterization. While my brain tells me The Mist is going for bombast, the movie itself tells me it's supposed to be realistic. I prefer to ignore that claim.

A horror/disaster movie posits what happens when ordinary people are confronted with extraordinary circumstances. The Mist shows us fear driving the existing social order to extremes. In the case of resident church-lady antagonist Miss Carmody, it draws forth ultimate faith in despair. She heralds the mist as judgment day: in the giant locusts she sees a Biblical plague, in the military man she sees a sacrificial lamb, in herself she sees a prophet. There's no other side to this character, no humanization whatsoever - when Amanda calmly and kindly suggests she might be projecting her fear, Miss Carmody responds by calling her a sinful whore or something. Likewise, Mr. Law and Order sits staunchly on the claim that there aren't monsters unless he can see proof, even as he sounds growingly hysterical in his attack. This works on the allegorical level where characters are simply incarnations of their metaphorical function, and in terms of story, that's the film's strongest suit. The Mist doesn't falter until it gets to the sympathetic players.

Sorry, no monsters. You can watch the movie or do a Bing (unpopular search engine) if you really want to see them.

Believability is an issue here. Believability is not a question of whether we're dealing with tentacle monsters and that I think the physics of tentacle monsters are sufficiently explained. It's a matter of whether a microcosm rings true. While the aforementioned societal stand-ins work as the pillars of this world, the behavior of normal people is really what's being analyzed. That's where The Mist loses me a bit. That the supermarket crowd is won over so quickly to religious fundamentalism is a strong damnation of human nature and needs sufficient support for me to buy into. What the movie is lacking is any actual character to illustrate that transformation. Miss Carmody was preaching the downfall of man in the supermarket aisles before the mist descended. Everyone else shuffles over in the background as things get worse, the only conversion we see being the dumb guy who gets super-traumatized. I just didn't find a convincing argument that this is what people do - it was all kinda quickly slotted to status quo so our hero would have cultish opposition. I like that as a plot point - the blathering doomsayer is usually the first to go, so having people rally around her is a nice inversion. It's just that the philosophical backbone is more idea than argument.

[major spoilers in the next paragraph]
The hero, David Drayton, works well enough. He's a bit on the uninteresting side, but oh well. He's the everyman in a sea of caricatures. His arc takes him from hope to despair, though its conclusion is a bit too dark to resonate with me. David is a man of action willing to do anything except sit and wait for death, whether it's investigating the generator, going to the pharmacy, or eventually making a run for it. Yet every action he takes makes the situation worse and gets people killed. In the end he chooses to kill his companions and his son rather than wait for the monsters to find him, acting on despair rather than hope. Unsurprisingly, he's a minute too soon - the mist rolls back and reveals that salvation was moments away. So complacent faith in despair was the way to survive? Action leads only to self-destruction? Even if methodically developed, our protagonist's lack of self-awareness strikes me as a bit bitter on the part of Darabont.
[end spoilers]

For all the heightened dialogue and characterization, when the horror gets going, the movie gets damn good. The pacing is spot on, starting with the normalcy of a grocery shopping trip silenced by air raid sirens. We slowly increment from there, taking plenty of time away from the monsters to focus on human turmoil and build the mystique of what's out there. The mid-movie foray into the pharmacy is so Aliens it hurts, but jesus if my skin wasn't crawling at every spidery image, most of all the fate of the still-living MP. And the appearance of the locusts nails everything that I like about this movie's atmosphere - the sense of awe and proportion, the patience of the monstrosities, and the genuinely hellish and end-of-times sensibility. The Mist is a story of anti-survivors, a group of people who could easily stay alive if they weren't so determined to die. That shot from outside the store as the locusts flit and prance carries an ominous natural beauty juxtaposed against humanity tearing itself apart inside a glass cage.

Fine, here are some monsters.

The creature design and effects are largely fantastic as well. Those tentacles get us off to a great disconcerting start - "what are those things attached to?" is a great question left unanswered. We get the predator/prey relationship between the vulture-things and the bug-things and the various size/ages of spiders, hearkening back to what makes the Alien xenomorph such a memorable creation - the naturalistic approach. There's the sense that these are real beings with their own life-cycles, rendering humanity all the less significant. In keeping with the Alien-inspired design, these things are deadly in all kinds of ways, be it acid-webbing, venomous stings, or shredding talons. The spiders are definitely the best-realized of the fiends and are absolutely the high point of the movie, even in spite of the overabundance of giant spiders in fantasy. At the other end of the spectrum, the lurkers in the mist felt kinda lame and almost comical, and I'd have preferred further development of another monster over their perfunctory appearances. Overall, this is a top tier creature feature and worth seeing on those grounds alone. I'm of the opinion that monster movies have largely suffered at the hands of CGI, but The Mist proves that CGI is ready to please (now if we could just get the mainstream off the current ghost movie fetish...).

What I know going out: It's hard to call The Mist a great movie when it has such ugly things to say, but the fact it can even be approached at that level is a testament to its quality. While I'm still left searching for a modern creature-feature adventure, I suspect The Mist will have legs and hope that someday I find a more resonant message at its core. 

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