Allegory is a dubious friend to monster movies. Take The Mist, for example. When you’re telling the story of Mans’ struggle against giant man-eating insectoids, you don’t always need a political subtext. To be frank, I think most tales of claws, teeth and twitching antennae are better off sticking with gore. It’s the 50s fault. If it hadn’t been for McCarthyism and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there would never have been a precedent for B-movies with socio-political aspirations. After Body Snatchers, it wasn’t enough to have the bug people gnaw our limbs off and tear young women’s blouses; they had to be (Shock! Horror!) based on something.
A spooky-looking mist comes tumbling out of the mountains near a picturesque mountain town. Decent, right-thinking movie poster artist (?) Thomas Jane dismisses it, but his son Billy (played by some-kid-or-other) knows the mist for what it is: spooky. Jane and his son head to the store to meet the rest of the cast of The Mist, and before you know it, there’s a man with blood on his face, ranting about how “something in the mist” got his friend – and everybody in the store knows “got” means “ate”. It’s a standoff; Jane and the other right-thinkers in one corner, Marcia Gay Harden and the religious zealots in the other. With giant man-eating insectoids seemingly having conquered the Earth, the age-old question arises: who then are the real monsters? (Hint: the f—ing monsters are, doofus!)
Director Frank Darabont is a man who believes in “classic” storytelling, i.e. you take an idea anyone else would make a ninety minute movie out of and you add half an hour (and subtract any humour). Darabont’s most famous movie, The Shawshank Redemption, got lucky with its cast, but all his other movies have floundered on an excess of solemnity. The Mist is no exception. Faced with rampant bug monsters and a general store chock-full of stereotypes, Darabont refuses any Tremors-style levity. Even a line like: “That’s not what the MP said in the pharmacy before the spiders came out of his skin” is delivered without exclamation mark.
In the lead role, Thomas Jane gives the kind of solid, dependable performance he’s given in every movie for the past ten years. Watching Jane these days is a bit like watching a guy at the super-market stack shelves perfectly; you wonder how he does it so well – then forget about him. Jane, like Darabont, is good in ways that just never really stand out. He’s not a journeyman, because he cares too much, but he doesn’t snag your eyeballs the way a movie-star should. Perhaps if he gave a really bad performance it might make all the difference for him.
Everyone else in The Mist is cast because they fit in a crowd. There needs to be a mass of people to whip up, because this is a movie about post-9/11 hysteria. Marcia Gay Harden plays the sort of religious person who does exist, but who is also the sole type of religious person in monster movies (make that movies, period). You sort of know she’s meant to be religious from the first judgemental look she gives, and pretty soon she’s cackling about God and building a personality cult. Harden gives her all to this part, praying with fury and letting her hair down when she really goes bonkers (as though her hairclips were there to keep her brain straight).
Even if you didn’t know The Mist was based on a Stephen King story, you’d know it was based on a Stephen King story: the small town, the sententious sermonizing, the bag boy eaten by a ravenous tentacle. King can’t let horror just be horrible, it has to be about Humanity. No fevered descriptions of sex and violence, for him, without an accompanying homily. And so Jane and Harden and co. rail back and forth about what people are like when pushed to extremes. And the ravenous bug beasts howl from outside, as if mourning the stories where everyone gets it on instead of philosophising; where people are eaten without allegory.