Wednesday, August 27, 2008

This week I have been mostly watching (SPOILER ALERT)...

I’ve never been a huge Stephen King fan, but along with the short story ‘Crouch End’ his novella The Mist rates high on my list of favourite Lovecraftian genre literature. In truth it’s been a while since I’ve read the novella, but was pleasantly surprised to discover this week that Frank Darabond’s cinematic adaptation does an outstanding job of remaining true to its source material - up to a point (about five minutes before the end to be exact).

Notably, I wasn’t put off by the quality of the CGI effects (which seems to be the principle criticism levelled at the film) - perhaps a result of Darabond’s skill at keeping me engaged with the story rather than the spectacle. Indeed, I felt that the film made excellent use of the eponymous mist - especially toward the end of the film - as a means of suggesting rather than depicting some of its monstrous inhabitants. However, I have a rather different view of what is, perhaps, the most controversial issue surrounding the film, namely its 'shock' ending which deviates from (or rather provides a coda to) the novella’s original ending. Much has already been said about the film’s denouement - especially by the hoards of dullard internet critics who found it too depressing (it’s a horror movie for god’s sake!). Even so, I feel bound to add my tuppence to said discussion. Undoubtedly Darabond makes an exceedingly brave attempt at producing a horror movie with what is (at least in relation to most horror films) a very dark and horrifying conclusion. And, admittedly, he succeeds in some good measure.

That said, I maintain some reservations about the ending wherein - SPOILER ALERT - the protagonist shoots his own son and a host of other folks to spare them from the mist, only to discover moments later that the cavalry - in the form of flamethrower-weilding military types - has arrived to save the day. Added to this the fact that said protagonist's distress is made all the worse by the appearance of a young mother and her children amongst those saved by the military. This moment is, presumably, meant to evoke a moment of horrifying irony given that said woman appeared briefly at the beginning of the film, where she flees into the arms of certain death after being shamefully refused help in finding her children by the frightened men holed up in the mist-beseiged supermarket.

A few minutes before the shock ending (and the point at which King’s novella actually ends) we are treated to a much more powerful scene where the surviving protagonists, having fled the supermarket, encounter the absolute apocalyptic enormity of the film’s narrative premise when they are overtaken momentarily by the massive tentacular thing of cyclopean proportions striding through the mist. Darabond, at this moment, manages to captures a sense of utter incomprehending despair and resigned horror on the face of the actors that is, in this reviewers mind, far more powerful than the very human horror that unfolds in the concluding moments of the movie. This moment of realisation exemplifies a very Lovecraftian expiation (to borrow a term from the film) of consciousness where the very fact of self-awareness becomes blasphemous in the face of what an awareness of the wider cosmos has to offer. Indeed, this expiation of consciousness is not only foreshadowed in the mindless and totalitarian immersion in religion explored earlier in the film, but also via the three suicides that occur during the movie (although guilt rather than a refusal to face the horrors of the mist are suggested causes in two of these cases). In this respect, the subsequent mercy killing by the protagonist of his son and companions isn’t the problem here - in fact, the shock ending would have been more powerful if the protagonist actually had enough bullets to kill himself, fade to credits. Self-immolation is, after all, the most rational of responses to a Lovecraftian cosmos!

As such it is the addendum to the mercy killings where Darabond’s film ultimately disappoints. At this point the facade of a intelligent horror film is stripped away to reveal a rather banal morality tale aftyer the forces of darkness have been dispersed by the cleansing fire of military might. By way of explanation: initially the film sets itself up as a kind of Lovecraftian Lord of the Flies - a commentary on the fragile and ultimately brutal, self-serving nature of the human condition: ‘as a species, we are insane’ comments one character. Yet the film's finale appears to offer a moral condemnation of the actuality of a Lovecraftian universe at the precise moment it accepts that actuality. This is, indeed, the final nail in the film’s coffin: it is not that it’s suggestion of apocalyptic cosmic horror is undermined by the emotional horror of having unnecessarily taken the life of one’s child, but what the reappearance of the young mother and her children signifies. In the same way that those that have sex end up the first to die in typical slasher movies, the young mother's re-appearance implies that the horrible fate of the other characters was deserved - a punishment for transgressions of socio-moral norms and a lack of faith in the fundamental goodness of human nature. Thus, while trying to challenge our assumptions about the actual scope and nature of human 'good' (especially those grounded in religion) the film ultimately emasculates itself by inadvertantly supporting those assumptions. In other words, this is actually a film with a happy ending.

1 comment:

  1. Complete disagreement with your interpretation of the ending of the film.

    I would have found the protagonist shooting himself to be blase, predictable, and an utterly boring repetition of the same old theme of "I try, I try, I try, I die." Please. Yawn.

    As is, we are treated instead to a spectacle of horror wherein the protagonist, having failed to save his wife ("I should have come back for her"), having killed those he was trying to save when the vehicle dies, and having killed his beloved son whom he promised to protect, is faced with the mercy of finding death in the mists...

    Only to be denied such when the army arrives from behind him (rather than forward) and drives the mists away.

    For the army arrives and we realize:

    Had the protagonist and companions just waited a few moments longer, decided to try to live, to hold out, just a little longer...

    Had the protagonist not grabbed the gun when he had been implored to leave it behind, and thus have had nothing with which to "mercifully" execute his companions...

    Had they all simply waited at the store instead of running for escape...

    Had they, the dead, whether killed by his hand or during the escape attempt to the vehicle, would all yet live and now been safe at this very moment!

    This is underscored by the appearance of the woman with her child, for we imagine the protagonist is then forced to think had he just tried to return home through the mist against his own fears, against all reason, ignoring the presumption of certain death, he might have been able to save his wife.

    We realize man, in his hubris, in thinking himself rational and capable of controlling and guiding his destiny with knowledge and forethought, fails. Whether he fails through primitive religious superstition or modern rational observation.

    Because at every turn, why would the protagonist have chosen otherwise? How COULD he have?

    He made every rational choice he could to attain salvation, and in the end, it not only did not help, but it ultimately damned him.

    All his efforts, in hindsight, became a tragedy of preventable but unforeseeable errors.

    The protagonist is thus destroyed by his own perfectly rational response to the horrors occurring around him -- by the world's uncaring revelation that for all his planning and knowledge and attempts to control his own fate, man is simply at mercy of what he does not or can not know and fails at having any real control of his situation no matter what he believes or plans otherwise.

    All his reason is empty dust in the end. The universe is revealed as a place of shadowy, unpredictable absurdism.

    The protagonist must live, exposed to the reality of this uncaring universe, knowing that all his plans and intellect and choices are meaningless. It is madness.

    The primal scream of defeat and horror at what should be a joyous event--the arrival of salvation and forestalling of death and the return of the world to normalcy--cinches the true horror of the ending. That, in the end, supernaturalism was as good as rationality: mad and pointless.

    Beyond the film using a cliche sort of familial horror -- having to kill one's own offspring -- it showcases the real horror in "had I just..." revelations and the ultimate futility of choice, reasoned or irrational, in outcome.


    In my opinion, the ending was the crowning moment of a masterfully designed horror film, for now he must live.