Shortly after Queen Elizabeth I assumed the throne of England, in 1558, she told wary, divided subjects, many of whom feared persecution for their beliefs, that she “has no desire to make windows into mens’ souls.”
I thought a lot about Elizabeth’s words as I revisited the 2007 Frank Darabont horror film The Mist. One of Darabont’s primary metaphors in the film is the window, and what is revealed about people when we look through, or smash, the window into humanity’s soul.
Adapted by Darabont from Stephen King’s 1980 novella, The Mist is a survival story about a group of people trapped in a grocery store by a supernatural mist that holds creatures from another dimension. If that sounds like ridiculous camp, well, it is. Kind of. But what is silly in concept, Darabont turns into a brutal nightmare that has haunted viewers for almost 10 years.
Inside the supermarket that is the setting of The Mist, the people gather into blocs, trying to understand what is happening and how. Two individuals become de facto leaders in the store. David Drayton (Thomas Jane) is a local painter trapped with his young son, Billy. Drayton sees the Cthulu-tentacles of a giant monster early and works to convince the others of the extreme nature of the danger. He is pragmatic and realistic about the situation. The other is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a religious zealot who believes God has sent the monsters to bring about the end times and the destruction of sinners. Mrs. Carmody invokes terror and and division; her language is of judgment and hell, and she welcomes the retribution God is bringing down on a world turned evil by sinners, and her villainy in the end might even surpass the creatures hidden in the mist.
(A third, Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), is a New York City judge who refuses to accept the supernatural explanation and looks for a rational one. He takes his group into the mist for rescue, and is never heard from again).
Thus Darabont sets up his micro-society. A religious leader, stoking the righteousness of God and the need for, as Mrs. Carmody continually screams, expiation, and a father looking to keep his child, and everyone else, alive. They’re stuck together, and outside are monsters waiting to devour everyone. All that separates the survivors from the monsters is a glass storefront; all that separates the audience from the survivors is the window of a movie camera.
Darabont’s screenplay moves quickly. The town is trapped in the marketplace only minutes into the movie, but this rush allows the director time to revel in the human devolution on display. Both sides return to the basest levels of primal instincts, exposing something horrific in the human soul.When The Mist was released, in 2007, it was fairly well-received. It hold’s a respectable 73% on Rotten Tomatoes, not bad for a mainstream horror film. Much of the praise for the film resulted from Darabont’s visual skill–the monsters are strange and beautiful–, its campy scare-filled premise, and its poignancy for a nation at war after a national tragedy. When it comes to consensus, though, the ending was another story.
In sixteenth century England, Elizabeth reigned over a kingdom divided by the reformation; to solve the problem, Elizabeth required Protestants and Catholics, with the Act of Uniformity, to attend the same church services and to use the same Book of Common Prayer. The requirement that Brits attend church once a week (punishable by a fine) came along with Elizabeth’s famous words. Don’t worry, you don’t all need to not fold into the same religious formula.
We do not need windows into mens’ souls.
A little comparative cultural analysis in this instance is easy. This is a political season, one marked by, to put it mildly, division. Among the candidates in this season is a mainstream, pragmatic, career politician; the other is a caricature who has built his career on the amalgam of wealth, power, and privilege. Like American society in 2016, The Mist locks a community divided in a room together and watches them turn against each other. The cultural criticism writes itself.
Much more interesting is the cinematic analysis of Darabont’s world, and considering what that says about the man who made The Mist. Darabont projects a microcosm of American society, trapped in a room, literally tearing each other apart. Drayton is the hero in this society, and Mrs. Carmody is the villain. The monsters in the mist, for Darabont, are really just the foil for investigating human depravity.
The factions that form fight, and kill, each other. Eventually the families and friends do the same. It is pure horror cinema, scary and fun, and then, in the end, despairing and brutal.
The first thing that happens in The Mist is a storm that knocks a tree through a window at the Drayton home. The broken window is the incident that sends Drayton and Billy into town. Only moments after the Drayton’s arrive in town, the store is enclosed by the mist. A man runs into the building, screaming of something in it that killed his friend.
What separates humanity from chaos in The Mist is a single storefront window. Outside the window is horror yet to be understood. The creatures that Darabont imagines are Lovecraftian in nature. This goes for the tentacles, of course, but also in the deeper sense of H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters. They are giant creatures of unknown origin, calling to mind primordial ancient beings.
These creatures, as it happens, are brought together with humanity by chance. In the mountains outside of town is an army facility that has been researching alternate dimensions. They created a window, one soldier informs the rest, allowing them to look into other dimensions. That window, Mrs. Carmody says, must have been a door. The creatures do not come with evil purpose. They appear to exist as animals, and have simply crossed over the border into our own world. Humanity is irrelevant on the cosmic scale; again, Lovecraft.
Darabont’s windows work as obvious metaphors, here. The glass is separation, but fragile and easily broken. The first separates man from nature. The picture window at the Drayton home breaks when a tree planted by Drayton’s grandfather’s falls in a storm. The second window, the storefront, protects society and culture; on the outside is a mist carrying death-dispensing kaiju, but what is in danger is civilization; it breaks when a giant bat-like creature breaks through while chasing giant bugs. The final window is that which protects the humanity as a whole from the vast unknown. When it goes, in comes unnamable chaos.
The fate of Drayton and his son, a town, a planet, a species, is decided by a fragile piece of glass that holds only until the second that it doesn’t. These windows, though, are literal. They function thematically to hold together the fun, campy horror movie adapted from a fun, campy Stephen King story. It is another window that I think Darabont is chiefly interested in; the window into the human soul, a window that would be as alien to Queen Elizabeth as creatures from another dimension. The camera lens.
At the end of Stephen King’s novella, Drayton, his son and a few other survivors flee into the mist to escape from Mrs. Carmody and her zealots. Carmody has ordered her followers to sacrifice Billy; God demands blood. The survivors make it through the dark and into Drayton’s car; King ends the book when they hear a voice in the radio, indicating others have lived through the nightmare. The ending offers at least some opportunity for hope, though it is definitely ambiguous.
That is not how Frank Darabont ended his script. In 2007, when The Mist was released, Stephen King was asked about the changes that Darabont made to the ending. He said, “Frank wrote a new ending that I loved. It is the most shocking ending ever and there should be a law passed stating that anybody who reveals the last five minutes of this film should be hung from their neck until dead.”
With respect to Mr. King, it’s been nine years (if you want to avoid the spoiler, skip this paragraph).
Here is how Darabont’s film ends. Drayton, his son and three others escape Mrs. Carmody’s madness and drive into the mist. They return to the Drayton home and find Mrs. Drayton dead, then they head down the highway, to see if the gas in the vehicle is enough to escape the mist. It isn’t. They end up stuck in the mist, among monsters, awaiting their death. To save them from those horrors, Drayton uses his last four bullets to kill his companions, including his son. He then steps from his car and awaits his own death. But it does not come. Instead, the mist is swept away, the military sweeps through and the sun shines once more on Drayton. Here is the ending, in it’s entirety, if you want to watch.
The ending of The Mist is original to Frank Darabont. As closure to a campy sci-fi horror film, it is shocking and, frankly, far too brutal for the material. This is a moment that captures not monsters in the mist but the fog of war. Thomas Jane’s emotional outburst carries in the silence, and the realization that there are no more monsters, only humans, is brutalizing to an audience who did not sign up for this bleakness. The hope that springs after the mist is much worse than the alternative that we find ourselves hoping for: Drayton’s death. Instead, Darabont sentences his hero to life, only after everything has been lost.
Darabont shoots this scene without music, on a slightly moving steadycam. The executions are witnessed from outside the car, followed by the whaling cries of Drayton. As he stands outside the vehicle, looking at his dead son, Darabont positions the camera in the vehicle. The camera and by extension, the audience, number among the dead. Only Drayton is left alive, waiting for his death.
But only for a few moments. After a couple lingering seconds, Darabont pulls back on his shot, and we move from inside the car to outside; we return to the living world and must look upon death wrought by the darkest actions imaginable. A man has killed his son, and now he waits for whatever he hears coming out of the mist.
The arrival of the US Army has never been less welcome in American cinema than in this moment. But they come, and with them, unwanted salvation. Mrs. Carmody is proven wrong; the mist clears. Reality returns, and with it, new life. But only when the very idea living is worse than death.
Frank Darabont’s ending of The Mist is as dark and disturbing as a Hollywood film might be allowed. It is hard to watch, and even more difficult to forget. That it comes from the director of Shawshank Redemption, a film about the enduring power of the human spirit, and the director of The Green Mile, an old-fashioned sentimental picture about good versus evil, is all the more remarkable.
What is fascinating about The Mist is that it offers a direct glimpse, if only a fleeting one, into the soul of a filmmaker. Both Shawshank and Green Mile are adaptations of Stephen King novellas. They are popular films in the mainstream culture of popcorn cinema. That Darabont would elect to adapt a third King novella is no surprise.
That he would add a conclusion of such stark, soul-wrenching violence, though, is surprising. And it is revealing. It needn’t be here; King’s ending works well, and would have been a satisfactory mysterious conclusion to a fun, strange horror film. But Darabont went his own way; the way of moral collapse. The only thing we can determine is that Darabont wanted to say this terrible thing about the world he works in.
In doing so, Darabont may have intended his camera to stand in for the soul of the audience, to work as an indictment of culture destroying itself. But in the end, it may say more about the vision of an artist who went somewhere frightening, and dragged us all down with him.