Monsters in Aisle 3

Running Time 127 minutes
Written by Frank Darabont, from the novel by Stephen King
Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Francis Sternhagen and Toby Jones

The number of horror films with enough realism and originality to pack a genuine entertainment wallop can be counted on one hand, but The Mist is a throat gripper that creeps you out and keeps you riveted to the screen simultaneously. This is due in no small measure to the fact that Frank Darabont is a real director, not a hack. I expected something extraordinary from the creative force behind The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, and The Mist, based on a nerve-frying story by Stephen King, delivers thrills wholesale.

In a sudden powerful storm on the coast of Maine, a humongous tree rips out of its roots and crashes through the lakefront house of a toned and hunky commercial artist (Thomas Jane). The next morning, when he takes his son into town to buy groceries and supplies, a mysterious pea-soup fog rolls across the water heading for land and engulfing everything in sight. Is it a pollution cloud caused by a chemical explosion at the nearby mill? Or is it, as one frightened shopper says, “Death”? Without telephones, radios, electricity, flashlight batteries, or any other means of communication with the outside, a handful of townsfolk are sealed off in the local supermarket where they must summon every morsel of common sense and muscle reflex in order to survive. They manage to close the doors to the loading dock, but how safe can you be in a storefront of plate glass? There’s something poisonous in that mist—and worse. Duct tape and 50-pound fertilizer bags provide some protection, but then the monsters show up. They snarl, they coil, they ooze under doors and drip through keyholes, their razor blade teeth masticating people to raw meatloaf with the worst ferocity since Alien. Red corpuscles spray through the store like somebody took an Uzi to a blood bank.

But wait. This is not another routine chomp-and-chew potboiler. Mr. Darabont has something more solid in mind, like the way civilized people in crisis turn into the same lawless dangers as the unknown forces they’re fighting—and he’s assembled a first-cabin group of passengers for the roller-coaster ride, including Marcia Gay Harden, Francis Sternhagen and Toby Jones (who should have won an Oscar for channeling the true spirit of Truman Capote in Doug McGrath’s film Infamous). The stalwart, red-blooded, impossibly handsome Jane is the rare action hero who can act (he’s played everything from a bank robber to a coke-addled exotic dancer to Mickey Mantle, so why isn’t he a superstar?), and as the brave human rescue center in the claustrophobic grocery store, he kicks away all the clichés.

Psychologists agree that normal, rational people trapped in life-threatening situations will turn on each other, desperately looking for a leader, even if it’s a loony. It’s not long before the survivors split into two factions, like political parties. The opposition is headed by a shrill, obnoxious religious nut case (played by Ms. Harden, who is making a habit of playing psychos that could be career-threatening). How much, Mr. Darabont asks, does it take to destroy the civilized values of a social order? Take away their guns, their cellphones and the keys to their ugly SUV’s, and you’ll find out.

Good production values, an ending that is totally surprising and a narrative that does not waste your time are icing on the cake. Suspense builds until you get your money’s worth. In Mr. Darabont’s bleak depiction of the apocalypse, the world doesn’t end with a whimper or a bang—but with a blood-curdling scream. The Mist is one of the best screamfests I’ve seen in years, and a whale of an entertainment. Monsters in Aisle 3