14 March 2008

THE MIST (Dir. Frank Darabont, 2007, US) - An Intelligent Horror Film

When Shawshank Redemption was released in 1995 it was dismissed by audiences but received quite warmly by critics who delcared it to be one of the best films of the year and an exceptional prison movie. The culture of DVD and the internet were the real saving grace of a film that has gone on to become a cult classic and one of the most popular films ever made. Since Shawshank, Darabont has only made 3 films; The Majestic, The Green Mile and most recently, The Mist. Apart from The Green Mile which had the advantage of Tom Hanks in the main lead, none of Darabont's films can be considered commercial successes, which is very strange considering he is one of the more interesting film makers working within the mainstream today. Darabont did the predictable thing after Shawshank which was to return to the prison genre and adapt another Stephen King novel for the big screen. The Green Mile, a gentle and moving story about Death row, confirmed Darabont's expertise with exploring the conventions of the prison genre. The film was a great success and stands alongside Shawshank as one of the great prison movies. Two prison films meant that Darabont was quickly faced with accusations of directorial limitations and his next project, the ill fated Jim Carrey collaboration, The Majestic, sunk without a trace at the box office and was equally mauled by the critics. The Majestic takes place in small town America in the 1940s and plays out against the backdrop of the McCarthy witch hunts. Jim Carrey plays a communist scriptwriter who is struck down with amensia and ends up being mistaken for a war hero. The Majestic is Darabont's homage to the whimsical Frank Capra films of the studio era and exmaines how cinema can play a central part in bringing people and together in times of crisis. Last year saw the release of Darabont's latest feature, The Mist, which is another Stephen King adaptation. The film has not done well commercially and neither was it received embracingly by the critics, many accusing Darabont of not being able to sustain the narrative and striking a false note with an ending which has provoked an ambivalent audience reaction. Though The Mist is not a prison movie, it does repeat a key Darabont thematic motif, that of imprisonment - people are forced to take shelter in a supermarket as they battle a mist which has been a consequence of a military experiment. Making a horror film in the age of parody and pastiche is a difficult task but Darabont succeeds brilliantly in adapting Stephen King's novel to the screen with an exceptional degree of intelligence and informed understanding of the genre. The Mist opens with a poster of the classic John Carpenter horror movie, The Thing, underlining Darabont's intentions to revitalise a genre which has slipped quite destructively into torture porn mode. Apart from the brilliantly executed set pieces with some of the most inventive use of CGI I have seen in a long time, Darabont taps into our current anxieties to do with the rise of right wing religious fundementalism within American society. This element is evocatively and disturbingly underlined in the religious demagogue played superbly by the embittered actress, Marcia Gay Harden, who sees the mist as a form of punishment from God. It is the conflict between the forces of athesim and fundementalism that pushes forward the narrative towards a shattering finale which seems to suggest that without hope neither the believer or non believer can live to see another day. And it is hope which seems to bring together the films of Darabont. Once again, it seems quite odd why the studio has not pushed this film as aggressively as they should have and you can sense a similar fate awaits the movie in the UK when it arrives on these shores later this year. The Mist is a rare genre film - an intelligent and moving horror film which does not treat the audience with contempt but asks them to question what role religion has to play in times of uncertainity and an age of secularism. It also contains one the creepiest spider sequences I have seen in a Hollywood horror film in a long time.

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