To be honest, I approach movie adaptations of Stephen King’s work with a certain amount of trepidation. For every Misery, Stand by Me, or even 1408 there is a Sleepwalkers, Maximum Overdrive, or The Mangler. However, Frank Darabont, who has specialized in Stephen King prison movies (Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), has proven that he understands Stephen King. And The Mist, based on the eponymous novella, is vintage Stephen King.

The Mist is an apocalyptic tale of an experiment gone awry and mysterious door being opened. After an electrical storm, a small town in Maine sets about to repair itself when this mist engulfs them, bringing with it all sorts of unimagined horrors and trapping several residents in a supermarket. As fear, desperation, and dwindling hope set in, the denizens face threats from within (as they begin to turn on each other) and without (with increasingly nasty attacks from the creatures in the mist).

The movie comes back to two ideas: fear of the unknown and the depravity of man.

“You guys don’t understand. Or you’re trying real hard not to.” –David Drayton (Thomas Jane)

Pitting rationalists, led by Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) against religious fanatics, led by Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), artist/voice of reason David Drayton has to find his own way. The mist represents mystery and how humanity confronts things they don’t understand. There is a degeneration as we wrestle with the unknown and come to the limits of our ability to control things. Be it a man made or natural disaster, we’re used to solving our problems and managing our situations. We’ve been blessed and cursed with a need to know and often our need for proof goes to war with our need for faith. As I wrote before:

You can have all the facts you want, you can debate facts, and, frankly, you ought to. Faith doesn’t mean the turning off of one’s brain: things should make sense and continual questioning is a valid exercise unto itself … Sometimes faith means that we have to come to the conclusion that we don’t have many things figured out. That we have to learn to get comfortable with that and the idea of mystery (read: the great “I don’t know”). Some people need proof.

Although one character in the movie puts it more succinctly: “You can’t convince some people there’s a fire even when their hair is on fire.”

“Let me shine your light. Some can be saved, can’t they?” –Mother Carmody

We are told to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Ultimately, horror is about the fear of death and horror is excited by the reality of evil. We fear for our lives and the lives of those we love. We live in fear of good being consumed by evil (and frankly, evil should be feared as we live with the consequences of evil all around us).

We often sense, if not experience, and existential terror, a gnawing emptiness that claws at our souls. A darkness, the deep, that threatens to suck the joy for all aspects of our lives, that can lead to a spiraling sourness to life that makes us want to crawl into bed and never get out.

As we approach our “end of self,” we may begin to hear (or spout) the “it ain’t my fault” refrain as we frantically point the finger of blame everywhere but at ourselves. Times of trying and testing can reveal an ugly side to our nature. I echo the sentiments of the character who answered the question “You don’t have much faith in humanity, do you?” with “None whatsoever.” In fact, the movie is bitterly pessimistic in what it has to say about the nature of mankind.

“I believe in God, too. I just don’t think he’s the blood thirsty asshole you make him out to be.” –biker

However, make no mistake, as the movie points out and criticizes, depraved acts can be cloaked in the name of religion. Religion, much like politics, has been and can be perverted to people’s own agenda and ends. People can go mad with fear, so that ideas such as expiation get twisted, to put things charitably. They can get “too Old Testament” a perspective on things, because if “you scare people bad enough, you can get them to do anything.” Leading them to get caught up in the idea of trying to earn their salvation … by any means necessary.

There probably should be a sense of “terror” or awe of seeking a relationship with something larger than we can conceive of with our finite minds, something beyond our measure and control. Which is why the notion of working out our salvation in fear and trembling can be such a messy proposition.

On a final note—and I’m going to make this as spoiler free as possible—the thing about horror movies and novels is not so much that you want a happy ending, but after investing in characters you care about (and few people can create characters like Stephen King) for any length of time, you want some semblance of hope. Though sometimes unrelentingly bleak endings are called for, but only when they are true to the story. So you will leave feeling it needlessly cruel, a big flipping off of the audience; or with the feeling of a slap to the face, but the good kind of pain.

The parting thought I had after seeing this nihilist movie is that there has to be more to this life than this, more than the depravity of man when left to our own plans and devices. Or else if I’m wrong, to quote Brent Norton, the joke really is on me.

Mutant insects, Lovecraft-inspired dinosaurs, unhinged religious fanatics, and people simply fearing for their lives, The Mist has plenty of villains to choose from. Buoyed by humor, despite its fatalistic explorations of humanity under siege, the movie’s roller coaster antics propel, if not always sustain, it. There are plenty of yell-at-the-screen moments, plenty of gross out moments, and plenty of genuine scares, even the though the movie veers into heavy-handed territory with some of its ponderous dialogue.