Sunday, 3 August 2008


On the story "The Mist"

Stephen King adaptations are a sub-genre unto themselves, and contribute some of the very best and the very worst to horror. I always considered King a kind of Spielberg to horror literature: incredibly popular, evidently artful storyteller and almost completely hobbled by key flaws. In Spielberg it’s the infamous sentimentality; in King it’s a broad crassness and borderline narcissism. Spielberg’s crassest excesses are to all to be found distilled into his one directorial effort so far: "Maximum Overdrive", an ode to dumb popcorn horror so unapologetic, it’s like the dumbest pal you ever had throwing that popcorn at you for feature length between calling you stupid made-up names, laughing obnoxiously and telling you, himself, how dumb and unapologetic he is. That King often misjudges his own strengths is evident simply by comparing Kubrick’s "The Shining" and King’s proposed corrective, his own TV series of the same considerable novel. That King didn’t like Kubrick’s film, and purloined Kubrick’s treatment of key moments, is surely a warning sign that he can miss the point. The whole ending of "It" is also another indicator: it is quite simply one of the most jaw-droppingly bad showdowns in the history of literature.

But to the good: at his best, at his least-self-referential, King is an immensely satisfying read, with a handling of broad character types as sure-footed as Dickens. However illogical and unfocused his stories can be, however annoying and distracting some of his literary tics are, he serves up some solid and highly memorable concepts, conceits, scares and stories. He has a wide enough scope and an irrepressible desire for prose, regardless of actually how good he is. You know, he tries, and he tries hard. He is not, as the CEO of Simon & Schuster once said, "non-literature", no matter his flaws and failures. He is an erratic, unreliable but always tempting brand.

"The Mist" is the novella that opens his anthology "Skeleton Crew", a collection that is dense and full of treats (as opposed to "Night Shift", which is, by the way, a collection of badly written and under-conceived horror snippets). "The Mist" benefits from the briefer length: it lacks those aforementioned tedious tics you find in much of King’s work: for example, the italicised repetitions and catchphrases which trip you up when you are happily trying to walk on. After a violent and destructive storm, a man and his son head for the supermarket to get supplies and find themselves stranded there by a mist full of monsters from ols B-movies, Bosch and Lovecraft. But these monsters are not what King is particularly interested in: rather it is the reaction of a group of people thrown together, trapped and subjected to fear and an undefeatable enemy. The story is populated by standard King-types, all quickly drawn and immediately both broad and convincing, who are then subjected to a sequence of increasingly nasty and upsetting set-pieces. The monsters attack, hysteria sets in, the monsters attack again; some of the people make a failed attempt to get further supplies; more hysteria sets in and there are murmurings about sacrificial offerings… The story is streamlined and meanders only for visions of God and a little angst-of-the-artist: our protagonist is an artist who muses on why does it feel like dying when you realise you are only a good rather than a remarkable artist. But in this piece at least, King seems to know his limitations and leaves the piece open-ended: not in that annoying, "it’s-not-really-over" manner (e.g., "Pet Sematary"), but more like Hitchcock’s "The Birds". There is no conclusion, just a wandering out into the unknowable apocalypse.

On the film "The Mist"

Ever since the cinematic revolution of post-Vietnam unhappy and ironic endings freed by the likes of "Night of the Living Dead", "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Easy Rider", we know that the worst might happen. Frank Darabont’s adaptation of "The Mist" takes King’s concept to its logical conclusion, one that King hints at but did not bring himself to render. The original story leaves itself open-ended: "but you mustn’t expect some neat conclusion", King says, trying to offer up the inconclusive as subversive storytelling. But Darabont takes a throwaway hint, a single sentence, and runs with it. You’ll know the sentence when you read it.

The film has all the ingredients mentioned from the original story and takes its time filling out the set-pieces and turning the screws. It works as a nod to old fashioned monster movies and feels especially resonant of the bright fun-chew horror flicks of the '80s, and not in a bad way. But there are no hammy or camp inclinations here, despite the scenery-chewing of prime villainess Miss Carmody and dodgy CGI tentacles. "The Mist" is deadly serious and ultimately a more successful post-9/11 film than Shyamanlan’s "Signs". "Signs" erred on the side of ‘faith’, and "The Mist" comes like a corrective, carrying a weight of conflict-weariness and the dangerous properties of fear and fear-mongering. There are solid performances, both broad and subtle; some fun if conventional monsters; a real claustrophobia; a credible escalation of character behaviour and drama; some nasty gore; but it’s the ending that elevates "The Mist" into something more troubling and worth discussing.

In going one step further than its source material, Darabont’s "The Mist" (he is also the screenwriter) offers an escalation of bad luck, bad decisions and a sense of deeper horror than just crazy evangelical women and monsters: it offers the horror of your bad luck and your bad decisions occurring when knee-deep in fear and trying to survive an unstoppable threat, if not the end of the world.

It is from this argument - that Darabont is attempting to evoke deeper layers of horror - that I cannot agree with those criticisms that ending of "The Mist" is cheap nihilism, pointless and a cop-out. There is no big showdown, just an excursion into a real feel-bad ending, alleviated only by a beautiful, surreal vision of a gigantic God-like Lovecraftian monster wandering in the mist. The fear is that being saved may not be enough, that it may come too late. This conclusion troubles because it is unfair: in more 'spiritual' terms, they give up hope too early. When we know how test screenings and the pressure for happy, emotionally conclusive endings have ruined many films - not least, the Will Smith "I Am Legend" - Darabont’s insistence on a double-edged resolution seems audacious. I’ll venture that some commentators dismissal of Darabont’s ending stems from a refusal to accept its injustice. But, as I have already said, injustice and bad luck are deep, profound dreads, and that is why Darabont’s "The Mist" adaptation generates emotional horror from a more conventional source.

Note: reports that King approves of Darabont's ending. The official statement is: "Frank wrote a new ending that I loved. It is the most shocking ending ever and there should be a law passed stating that anybody who reveals the last 5 minutes of this film should be hung from their neck until dead." -