Writer-director Frank Darabont often seems like Stephen King's biggest fan; of all the filmmakers who've tackled King's work, he's put the most faith in the source material, for better (by sticking with The Shawshank Redemption's low-key authenticity) and worse (by dutifully echoing the overblown, corny weaknesses of The Green Mile). So it's no great surprise that he operates by the book for much of the King adaptation The Mist. What is surprising is how he rebounds from his weak, awkwardly compressed opening to produce one of the scariest King films since Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
The Mist begins with some clumsy exposition, establishing the strained relationship between artist Thomas Jane and his irritable neighbor Andre Braugher. After a massive thunderstorm downs power lines and smashes Jane's house and Braugher's car, they travel into town together, with Jane's young son along for the ride. But when an unnatural fog sweeps down from the local military base, their fragile accord disappears as they wind up trapped in the local grocery store, fending off the monsters that come out of the mist.
The Mist's most problematic element is Jane, star of The Punisher and the misshapen Stephen King adaptation/abortion Dreamcatcher. Once the blood-sprays start and most of the scenes take place in the dark or amid tense huddles, Jane's sub-basement vocal pitch and lurching Shatner-esque delivery actually enhance the feelings of terror and abnormality. But until reaching that point, he sounds ridiculously mannered in a film that's pushing for a King-esque level of grounding reality.
Then again, everything wrong with the film is easy to forget once the action starts. King's original novella is as much a study in mob dynamics and in-group/out-group mechanics as it is a bugaboo story, and Darabont captures that perfectly, with the grocery-store refugees bonding and splintering, alternating panic, denial, and irrational finger-pointing. The premise of an opaque, monster-filled mist offers a thousand opportunities for creatures lunging out of concealment, and Darabont does offer some standard boo!-eek scares and plenty of CGI nightmares. But he puts just as much tension into the nerve-wracking character dynamics, particularly regarding Marcia Gay Harden as a religious kook whose end-times evangelism starts converting cringing victims into dangerous fanatics. Her difficult role easily could have become comic or overblown, but Harden is genuinely creepy in her overbearing, vindictive conviction, and Darabont makes it clear through her that people can be just as unknowable and unsettling as any crawly critter. By catching his protagonists between equally oppressive horrors, Darabont successfully finds the squelchy heart of King's story, and keeps it pumping until the ugly end.