The Mist (* * 1/2 out of four) is more thought-provoking than frightening.
Its stubbornly cynical attitude makes it worth watching, more than the monsters or the impenetrable mist (which looks spewed from a fog machine) engulfing a small town in Maine.
Yes, it's an old-school horror movie complete with huge insect predators and plenty of gore, but the questions it raises about religion, paranoia, mob behavior and human nature are the most intriguing aspects of the movie. The special effects are mediocre and the characters are not well-developed.
What distinguishes it from stock horror films is its nihilistic streak. Based on the 1980 Stephen King novella and directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), the film is thoughtful and smart but slow-moving. And the ending may anger viewers.
David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) take a trip to the grocery store, initially in the company of an argumentative neighbor (Andre Braugher), leaving Mom home to cope with the fallen tree caused by a storm the previous night. Fog is rolling in and the mood is ominous.
A bloodied man runs into the market as David and Billy are shopping, babbling about his friend being whisked away by something.
Soon, David, his young son and dozens of other shoppers become trapped in the grocery store by the pervasive, eerie mist. David and some of the market employees witness an attack firsthand, involving some mysterious tentacles. At first, no one will believe that a supernatural monstrous force is plaguing them. Soon, physical signs induce widespread credulity.
In fact, belief is what the entire premise hinges on. A wild-eyed religious zealot named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) sees the events as a sign of God's wrath and preaches non-stop to the huddled grocery store masses. As things grow worse, she begins to find an audience for her doomsday rants among the scared townspeople. Though Harden chews the scenery, the point is chilling: This flesh-and-blood human, with her avowed fanaticism and apocalyptic pronouncements, is far scarier than the massive invading bugs.
The question becomes which is more terrifying: the rampages of the giant tentacled, winged creatures lurking in the mist or the actions of decent but fear-addled local folk pumped up by hellfire-and-brimstone speeches? It is that conundrum that gives the movie its power.
It is a far more interesting movie thematically than technically. There are extended close-ups and too many sweeping pans, apparently achieved with two cameras roving and shooting almost haphazardly over the crowd in the market. The intent is to approximate a documentary style, but it isn't always effective within the B-movie context.
Still, the issues raised may make for some lively debate on the way home — especially if it's foggy out. (Running time 2 hours, 7 minutes. Rated R for violence, terror, gore and language. Opens Wednesday nationwide.)