[Screen It]

(2007) (Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden) (R)

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Horror: Various people find themselves trapped in a small town's grocery store when a mist rolls in, concealing all sorts of deadly monsters, and causing division among the survivors about the cause of this disaster and what they should do about it.
David Drayton (THOMAS JANE) is a movie poster illustrator who lives in a small Maine town with his wife and young son, Billy (NATHAN GAMBLE). Other than having to deal with their contentious neighbor, Brett Norton (ANDRE BRAUGHER), things are fairly quiet there. That is, until a violent thunderstorm sends a tree crashing into their home.

The next morning, and with Brett going along with them, David and Billy head to the local grocery store for supplies. Once inside, a strange mist suddenly rolls in, with a local man, Dan (JEFFREY DeMUNN), running in, bloody and claiming something in that mist got his son. Nervous about that, those inside stay put.

Among them is the store manager, Bud (ROBERT C. TREVEILER), and his assistant, Ollie (TOBY JONES), while Sally (ALEXA DAVALOS) is one of the checkers who's sweet on local military boy Wayne (SAM WITWER). He's about to go on his leave with his buddies when that's suddenly canceled as the military rolls through the town in force.

Others there include new school teacher Amanda (LAURIE HOLDEN), senior citizen Irene (FRANCES STERNHAGEN), and local blue collar worker Jim (BILL SADLER). Then there's Mrs. Carmody (MARCIA GAY HARDEN), an Old Testament doomsayer who believes this is God's reckoning for all of mankind's sins.

The others don't believe her, at least at first, but that also holds true for Brett and others who think David and a small group are trying to mock him by saying that the store's bag boy has just been killed by some sort of monster, which is true. As the situation worsens, night falls, and various monsters and creatures come out of the mist toward the store, the survivors find themselves splintering into rival groups, with each thinking theirs is the only logical, sane, and/or correct one. With David worried about his son and his wife back home, he and a handful of others then decide they must take action to get out of this predicament alive.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
For those not accustomed to it, sensory deprivation is an odd, sometimes scary, and certainly unusual experience. Most everyone's probably awakened to discover that their arm has "fallen asleep" and that signals no tactile response, but I've also had the no taste phenomenon (which would be great for dieters), complete darkness (in a cavern), and the absence of sound (out in the Arizona desert, with no wind, bugs or manmade noises).

Perhaps the creepiest, however, is being immersed in total, completely socked in fog. I'm not talking about the quarter of a mile visibility type, but rather the one experienced at the shore or on top of a mountain where you can't even see your hand in front of your face. Coupled with the odd muffling of almost all noise that nearly creates an eerie presence of sound that seems to emanate from everyone. It's a completely disorienting and fairly creepy yet fun effect.

All of which should also be the result of experiencing "The Mist," the latest film based on a story by Stephen King. While it's occasionally effective, its attempts to scare, spook and/or get us to think only sporadically work. The film -- adapted from King's short story of the same name -- is perhaps most interesting in that it's the third adaptation of King's writing by writer/director Frank Darabont.

His first two -- "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile" were terrific period pics about prison life, even if the latter suffered from its mystical and magical elements. Here, a prison figures prominently as well, but this time it's figurative rather than literal as some folks in -- natch -- small town Maine find themselves trapped in the local supermarket not only by the fog, uh, mist, that rolls in, but also by what lurks within it.

Like any prison flick, it shows how people end up dividing themselves into different groups, camps and alliances, a cultural phenomenon that happens in real life as well, but is particularly apparent when some sort of societal breakdown occurs.

The point of all of that is with how people resort to survival instincts when faced with something bad. Accordingly, no matter how civil we think we might be, we're still a quite brutal species, capable of normally unspeakable acts. In other words, we're the real monsters rather than anything out there, whether real or something imagined by Hollywood filmmakers.

It's a decent if not entirely original premise, something akin to a supernatural meets sci-fi variation of "Twelve Angry Men." Yet, it's a bit simple in its setup and structure here (when not preachy, both in tone and character behavior), and then makes the misstep of pushing the thematic monsters into the background in favor of the special effects variety.

For a short while and before feeling the apparent need to justify the special effects portion of the overall budget, the filmmaker has some fun with the spooky "what's out there" material. A bloodied person runs into the supermarket, claiming something in the mist took someone else, and then there's the loud banging on a metal, roll-up door back at the loading dock.

Unfortunately, the obligatory visuals start to chip away at that somewhat spooky mystery, first with tentacles that come under that roll-up door, and then an increasingly disparate number of otherworldly critters that make their way around and eventually into the market and a nearby pharmacy.

All of which undermines the Bruce the Shark lesson Steven Spielberg learned while making "Jaws." With a faulty mechanical shark, the young director discovered that less is more, resulting in a cinematic masterpiece that still stands up today (at least when the shark is not seen -- point fully noted).

Then there's the fact that we've seen many of these monsters or variations thereof before. The prop and special effects vaults of films ranging from "Starship Troopers" to "Tremors" to the "Alien" movies all obviously inspired what's on display here, even down to the cocooning of humans as hosts for the little baby monsters.

Granted, some of the material is effective, but the film can't decide if it wants to play it straight (at least within the parameters of the genre) or go the camp route. The resultant combination often feels like it's battling itself, especially considering the unexpected and certainly un-Hollywood-like ending that Darabont has tacked onto King's original conclusion.

It doesn't help that many of the characters are little more than cardboard and/or one-note cutouts. There are a few interesting ones (Tobey Jones as the assistant store manager who goes from seemingly timid to near Rambo status and Marcia Gay Harden as an end of days, Old Testament thumping, rabble-rouser), but most are too simple in nature when not being of the "too stupid to believe cuz I'm in a horror movie" variety (which elicits the best line from the otherwise bland Thomas Jane as the hero: "Are you guys willfully being dense?").

The result of the unbelievable behavior and motivation is that viewers are likely to be transported out of the suspense and action back into their seats where fanny squirming and eyebrow raising will signal a growing frustration with the material. Had the flick gone more of the "Tremors" route, that would have been easier to accept, but a goofy if effective sending up of the genre doesn't seem to be the desired goal (and it's certainly not the end result) here.

Instead, the breakdown of society based "monsters" approach means the camp can only go so far. And in terms of the "Oh no, what's out there?" material, the film may have its occasional moments, but it certainly pales in comparison to "Jaws," the jeep & T-Rex scene in "Jurassic Park," or even this film's closest cinematic relative, "The Fog" (John Carpenter's 1980 version, not the bad recent remake). That follow-up to "Halloween" was and still is a highly effective little thriller about what might be riding in with the title weather phenomenon.

Up, down, and sideways, it captured the very essence of the creepiness that accompanies the blanket sensory deprivation condensed water vapor provides when provided in ample supply. Maybe that's why this film is called "The Mist," as you never hear about "dense mist advisories." Necessitating the intermittent wipers rather than headlights, slowing down to a crawl and having a death grip on the steering wheel for fear of what might be out there, the film rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 12, 2007 / Posted November 21, 2007

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