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By Pete Vonder Haar | November 22, 2007

“The Mist” is writer/director Frank Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation (or fourth, if you count his 1983 short, “The Woman in the Room”). Critically, it probably won’t receive a fraction of the plaudits his earlier version of “The Shawshank Redemption” did, but it’s a solid effort in its own right, and easily vaults to the upper echelon of horror flicks based on King’s works (talk about damning with faint praise). Even then, it’s less a monster movie than it is an exploration of the range of human reaction – both good and bad – to extreme and seemingly impossible circumstances.

The titular mist’s arrival is preceded by a monster storm that does some serious damage to the Drayton homestead. Dad David (Thomas Jane), a movie poster artist, and young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) head into town for supplies. Tagging along is the Draytons’ neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), an attorney from New York City who has an unfriendly history with David. Nevertheless, the two appear to pull together in time of need (and because Norton’s car was crushed by a tree) and make the trip to the neighborhood grocery store together. Along the way, they note with some curiosity the number of emergency and military vehicles on the road.

Shortly after they reach the store, the mist arrives. Folks are convinced to stay put by one of the locals, who claims he saw something in the mist “take” a friend of his. David is the first to hear something out of the ordinary in the back of the store. He’s ridiculed by a few of his fellow townsfolk, until a bag boy is sucked off the loading dock by some tentacled monstrosity. Even then, skeptics (led by Norton, who’s convinced the locals are playing a trick on him) abound. Others are more inclined to side with Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a local spinster convinced the mist is a harbinger of Biblical end times, and who swiftly gains recruits to her cause. The handful of remaining rational individuals – David, assistant manager Ollie (Toby Jones), and new schoolteacher Amanda (Laurie Holden) among them – find that the horrors outside have taken a back seat to the danger presented by Mrs. Carmody and her gang of zealous goons, who have gotten it in their head that human sacrifice is the only way to appease their god.

While there are some notably horrific set pieces (the loading dock scene, a nocturnal attack by extra-dimensional pterosaurs, and an ill-fated expedition to a neighboring drug store), Darabont and King are more concerned with speculating how people deal with alien monsters laying siege to their town like so many Phish fans (though I grant you, these things do a lot more than merely stink up the local parks with patchouli and ditchweed). How we deal with supernatural life-and-death scenarios is a common King motif, and “The Mist – like many of his similarly themed offerings – doesn’t offer a lot of hope. Past King adaptations have been criticized for pulling punches and offering cop-out (“Sometimes They Come Back”) or cheesy endings (“Maximum Overdrive”), but that isn’t the case here. I won’t spoil the climax, but let me just say that for maybe the first time in a Stephen King movie, I found myself preferring the filmed version to the written.

It used to strike me odd that King’s sensibilities never translated well to the screen. For a while I think it was a result of the low regard Hollywood had for the genre during the 80s. Ultimately, it took some critically acclaimed versions of his non-spooky efforts (“Shawshank,” “The Green Mile”) to revive his “master of horror” status. And while it isn’t perfect – there’s far too much standing around and watching freaky s**t happen in lieu of running away, for starters – “The Mist” is a damn fine horror movie.

I’ll also say that part of me doesn’t want to believe my fellow Americans would so willingly fall under the spell of an obvious religious nutcase like Mrs. Carmody. Then I remember how many of them donated money to keep Oral Roberts from being “called home,” and the contemptible opposition many of us have to gay marriage or the teaching of evolution, and I realize this one of the first King movies to legitimately give me the creeps.

At least since Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest “Misery.”

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