The Mist

The Mist

 

Has writer/director Frank Darabont been weighed down by the heavy legacy of his first feature film? The Shawshank Redemption remains one of the most popular movies ever made, if not quite (yet?) accepted into the canon (read The Dork Report review). The Mist, after The Green Mile, is Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation, so far only having made only one feature not derived from a King work. After two prison yarns (one set very much in the real world, the other with a dash of the supernatural), Darabont now turns to one of King’s more characteristically gruesome horror tales.

King writes at great length about classic horror movies in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, and The Mist squarely fits into one kind of classic b-movie structure. We open in a seemingly bucolic lakeside town with simmering tensions between local residents and wealthier weekenders summering in lovely lakeside homes. A mysterious, mostly unseen, and definitely hostile alien force traps a random assortment of local personalities in a supermarket. The horror works best before we actually see any evidence of the supernatural; for example, a character bolts into the store, full of nervous but not yet terrified citizens, crying the simultaneously eerie and hilarious line “There’s something in the mist!” For home viewers, a big reveal was spoiled right in the DVD menus: one of the adversaries is a very biblical swarm of giant beastly locusts.

The MistThey’re heeeeeeere…

Like virtually every zombie movie ever made, a cross-section of society is trapped in a confined location, under siege by unstoppable forces. The microcosm includes representatives of all the usual suspects, including a top New York City lawyer (because we all know NYC sharks are more venal than the regular kind) Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), a couple of good ol’ boys, the town cutie pie, a few handsome young lads from the nearby military base, and the resident looney fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden). The Mist is not above another classic horror movie cliche: the virginal good girl kisses a boy and dies horribly in the very next scene. The heroes that arise are, of course, unlikely: a grocery bagger (an interesting character with a lot left up to us to fill in: he’s not a young man, and he’s got brains and skills, so how did he end up in such a dead-end job?) and a relatively wealthy artist David (an outsider to the town, viewed as elitist).

We first see “our hero” (more on that later) David (Thomas Jane) in the very first shot. He’s an illustrator of movie posters: I spotted three shout-outs to genre movies both actual and potential: Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, and Stephen King’s own Dark Tower. He’s a macho, badass painter, using the back of his own hand as a palette, and bitching about studios cobbling together cheap posters in Photoshop.

Speaking of craven movie studios, sometimes studios whitewash action and horror movies to cater to more lucrative PG-13 audiences (like Blade III: Trinity, extraordinarily lame & tame compared to Guillermo Del Toro’s outrageously gory Blade II – vampire autopsy, anyone?). The Mist is one of the few R-rated horror movies I’ve seen that might have been better with less gore and profanity. Most especially the profanity – I’m certainly guilty of salty language in my own vocabulary, but the overall F-bomb count in The Mist is so absurdly high that it almost seems as if the filmmakers were deliberately striving for a record.

The MistPlay misty for me?

Overall, I’d have to say I really did not care for the movie, finding it overwritten. At numerous points, characters explicate the plot, elapsed time, and character arcs – to paraphrase an example: “It’s only been two days, and Mrs. Carmody has already turned everybody against us… in only two days!” It’s also too reliant on CG gore for a story than depends on the horror of the unseen (also where M. Night Shyamalan’s otherwise great Signs falls down). But the best bits of the movie are squeezed between the CG set pieces, and the entire affair is redeemed by an utterly astonishing ending. Although I normally don’t concern myself with spoilers on The Dork Report, it would be cruel of me to reveal the ending here. Suffice to say, it’s impossible to imagine how a script this bleak was financed and distributed (by Dimension Films). I also wish I had seen the movie in theaters so I could see firsthand how an average audience would react to such an ending. The big downer at the end of Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review) did not go over well, to say the least, and The Mist makes that one look positively wimpy.

Like Signs and Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, The Mist depicts a massive alien invasion from the perspective of regular folk, as opposed to the global view taken by movies such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and Independence Day. But The Mist has a truer ending than any of these examples. The core theme is of the roles people assume under extreme duress. Their illusions about themselves are amplified and they believe their own myth. Just as the fundamentalist Mrs. Carmody compensates for a lifetime of exile from healthy human interaction by elevating herself into a demagogue (I’m reminded of the characterization of the young Adolf Hitler in the movie Max, as he first finds the mass adulation he desires as he rallies a crowd into a racist frenzy), David falls all too well into the role of hero; he never complains when people turn to him for strength and leadership. The so-called “hicks” that fight him in the beginning of the film were right; he does think he’s smarter than everybody else. In movies, he’s exactly the kind of guy other characters automatically defer to in dire situations: So-and-so’s dying of third degree burns? Tell David! What do we do next? Ask David!

The utter demolition of the stock hero character type is so surprisingly strong that it’s practically subversive. I had thought Postmodern genre films had petered out after their late-90s golden age of Scream, Starship Troopers, and Wild Things. But The Mist is a new entry in the Postmodern genre cycle, in the sense that it comments critically upon the horror movie genre, and yet still actually is a horror movie. The Mist may be a monster movie, but it’s not about a Thing, an Alien, or a Creature from the Black Lagoon; it reveals the standard hero character to be a kind of monster himself.


Official movie site: www.themist-movie.com

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AVP:R – Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem

Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem

 

Ridley Scott’s original Alien is one of the most effective and influential horror films ever made, and a personal favorite of this Dork Reporter, who makes no apologies. Its art direction and visual aesthetic were so far ahead of their time that pretty much only the haircuts have dated, but the real keys to its longevity are its brains and depth of substance. No doubt there have since been dozens of dissertations on its gender themes and often overtly sexualized imagery designed by biomechanical artist H.R. Giger. Once you realize the portal to the crashed spacecraft is a giant vagina and the Alien’s head is an erect penis, you will never be able to un-see it.

But Alien’s most unfortunate legacy is that it has forever melded the science fiction and horror genres in moviegoers expectations. Aside from the odd exceptions to the rule ranging from the parable-for-all-ages E.T. to the gut-wrenching social critique Children of Men, we now can’t have a horror film without a rubbery alien or a sci-fi film without eviscerations and gore.

Worst of all, the Alien franchise has been cursed with diminishing returns. Probably but not necessarily by design, James Cameron’s vapid sequel Aliens completely drained the core themes and subtexts from the original in favor of the mere spectacle of spaceships and bullets. Subsequent sequels achieved the rare feats of being by far the worst films of two extraordinarily talented directors: David Fincher’s compromised Alien3 (the only installment with the traditional numeral in the title) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s bizarre-but-not-in-a-good-way Alien: Resurrection.

Part of the problem is that there can be only a limited set of variations on the core premise. The original Alien found the right recipe on its first try: lone but nearly invincible creature vs. unarmed bunch of humans in claustrophobic environment = teh awesome. Most sequels multiplied the number of aliens only to find that their collective dramatic impact was lessened when all it took was a futuristic Colonial Space Marine’s rifle to dispatch one.

Aliens vs. Predator - RequiemNope, I just see two dudes in rubber suits

Meanwhile, the less ambitious Predator franchise managed to only rack up a meager two installments. Perhaps their lesser appeal is attributable to what the Alien films got right; the “aliens” are not intelligent members of a society like the Predators, whose entire culture is based upton the concept of hunting for sport. Aliens are instinctual beasts that live to eat and (especially) to breed, so savage and animalistic that their species doesn’t even have a name.

The two spent properties found a new life together in the unholy crossover marriage “Alien vs. Predator” that began as comics and video games. Inevitably, they found their way back to cinemas as Hollywood attempted to reboot the cash flow with the first Alien vs. Predator film in 2004. But this “new” series has already run out of variations on the core premise in only its second installment.

Believe it or not, AVP:R is the first Alien film set not only in the present day, but also actually on Earth. This time around we have a single Predator vs multiple aliens, with a variety of helpless human bystanders caught in the crossfire. Basically, the Predators screw up and accidentally seed Earth with a batch of aliens they had intended to breed as hunting stock. A lone Predator, perhaps fancying himself a sort of space age Mr. Fixit, attempts to whitewash his colleagues’ mess. He’s no sympathetic hero, however, for he doesn’t hesitate to take the pelt of a human as a trophy when the opportunity arises.

To go back to the aforementioned variety of helpless human bystanders: any decent screenwriter or producer (or, hell, anyone who’s seen a couple of movies) should have realized that there are three problems with this scenario: “variety,” “helpless,” and “bystanders.” The huge cast of human characters all remain underdeveloped. The lamest thread involves a bunch of so-called teenagers, obviously written by a screenwriter that was never actually a teenager. The only recognizable face (to this Dork Reporter, at least) is Reiko Aylesworth from 24, miscast as an Army soldier on leave. Her only purposes in the story seem to be to instruct the audience that guns work better if you shout while shooting, and to have someone on hand who might plausibly know how to fly a helicopter.

Aliens vs. Predator - RequiemMandible with care

AVP:R is so divorced from the six prior Alien films that there are only two tenuous continuity threads to link them. A Mrs. Yutani appears, presumably of the Weyland-Yutani corporation that, in the future, has the secret agenda of locating more aliens as it strip mines the galaxy for fossil fuels. But perhaps the one true link to the original Alien film from 1979 is a sequence involving a chick stripping down to her skivvies. In the original, the truly badass Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) deservedly kicks back her heels and gets ready for a suspended-animation nap in her undies, but here all we get is a bland “hottie” stripping for her unlikely dweeb crush (an incidence of nerd wish-fulfillment that speaks volumes as to the maturity and life experiences of the filmmakers).

What should have been another major screenwriting red flag is the hugely unsatisfying ending. When the Predator, the closest thing the film has to a hero or protagonist, finally closes in on his prey, they go at it looking for all the world like two pro wrestlers in rubber suits. And then immediately… they’re both obliterated by a nuke. A small handful of the humans are only barely proactive and manage to survive untraumatized despite having watched all their families and loved ones killed.

So why do I keep punishing myself by watching each Alien sequel? I don’t ever again expect something as multilayered as the original Alien, but I do keep thinking that these kinds of movies are supposed to be at best entertaining and at worst a little fun, and yet they always turn out torturously awful. AVP:R’s best quality is its brisk 86 minute running time, even in its unrated extended DVD cut.


Official movie site: www.avp-r.com

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