The air out there

Nihilism rages at the multiplex

We go to horror movies for that most Aristotelian of desires: catharsis. By vicariously experiencing the terror-filled, life-threatening scenarios, we reaffirm our ability to live. No matter how unstoppable the knife-wielding maniac seems, he will meet his demise and the protagonist will survive. Traditionally, that protagonist is the most decent or morally upright character.

It's no coincidence that horror films are popular during the Bush-Cheney years. The appalling realities of war, uncertainties of personal wealth and callous manipulations by corporations and government have bred an incredible amount of anxiety and discomfort. Deep down, we want to be reassured that we'll be OK. So, if we can endure an onslaught of flesh-eating undead, surely we can handle less pocket change.

So, how to explain the recent crop of successful scare films that feature unrelenting torture and bleak outcomes? Instead of getting on the cinematic equivalent of a rollercoaster ride, some audiences are opting to set themselves on fire and drive into a brick wall. Nihilism rages at the multiplex. Are we really that self-loathing?

Frank Darabont's The Mist, a perfectly eerie addition to the apocalyptic horror genre, thinks so. Essentially a Lovecraftian take on Hitchcock's The Birds, this B-movie slitherfest offers two hours of arm-gripping suspense only to conclude with an unnecessarily depressing and pretentious conclusion.

When a mysterious storm rolls through a peaceful Maine community, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) head to the grocery store for supplies. Outside, a malicious mist envelops the town and before you know it a blood-covered local runs in screaming that something horrible is in the mist! While most store customers stay inside, a few rush out to the parking lot never to return.

What starts as a promising retelling of the Twilight Zone's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" quickly turns into Night of the Living Dead; only with squirmy tentacles and creepy insects instead of zombies.

The trapped residents plot, argue and despair as hideous creatures pick them off. The fanatically religious town crank, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), sees the apocalyptic onslaught as her moment to shine, whipping people into a frenzy of fear and paranoia.

Darabont, operating on a very modest budget, shoots his adaptation of Stephen King's novella in an aggressive vérité style that generates a sense of claustrophobia and dread. The special effects (by the creators of Pan's Labyrinth), though low-budget, are creepy, establishing an effective B-movie tone. Snarling spiders, squishy tentacles and lumbering monstrosities pop up like spillovers from bad dreams and the results are spectacularly gruesome.

More impressive is how the film's sense of hopelessness gets under your skin. Like the best end-of-the-world flicks, The Mist creates a reality that is relentlessly oppressive and supernaturally spooky. Anyone can be a victim, and Darabont is utterly ruthless in his choice of character sacrifices, producing nerve-racking chills.

Unfortunately, the screenwriter-director isn't content to simply master his B-movie instincts. Darabont wants The Mist to achieve metaphysical profundity. And his attempt to distill (and critique) the conduct of ordinary folk thrust into an extraordinary situation (with all its post-9/11 implications) creates an interesting subtext. But it's muddled and ham-fisted; you can't possibly take him seriously. Instead of using three-dimensional characters to examine the rift between faith and despair, how survivors overcome insurmountable odds, The Mist relies on paper-thin characters and didactic exchanges.

The cast, filled with such solid character actors as Toby Jones, Andre Braugher and William Sadler, is stranded with a single identifiable personality trait and banal, redundant dialogue.

True to horror film conventions, these characters each make incredibly stupid decisions. ("No, I refuse to walk 20 feet to see the alien tentacle in the back room because I think you're mocking me for being an outsider. Off I go into the mist.") As a result, the film's tone is all over the place, swinging wildly from primal terror to hysterical camp to poignant drama and back again.

Which is why the The Mist's final five minutes fail so completely. Darabont hasn't earned his highly calculated O. Henry-like ending. Maybe it's because I'm the father of two young boys, but using a child to deliver a sadistic blow to the audience in a popcorn fright flick leaves me cold. Then again, maybe it's just what the masochist masses have ordered.

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