Frank Darabont Has A Healthy Reaction To The Mist's Legacy [Exclusive]

Frank Darabont knows about comeback stories. His adaptation of Stephen King's novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" (published in the anthology that gave us "The Body," aka "Stand By Me," and "Apt Pupil") was made for $25 million and released to theaters with little fanfare. Though Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film their coveted two-thumbs-up seal of approval, some of their esteemed peers (e.g. The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan and The Washington Post's Desson Thomson) were mixed to negative.

But the movie's biggest problem had nothing to do with reviews. It was a 141-minute prison movie about the unlikely friendship that develops between two male inmates (Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman) over 20 years. There was no romance or action to market. The Stephen King pedigree was downplayed because it wasn't a straight-up horror flick, and the studio's modest awards hopes for the movie might've been diminished due to its association with an author best known for pulp entertainments (even though Kathy Bates had won the Best Actress Oscar five years prior for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes in "Misery").

When "The Shawshank Redemption" earned an unexpected seven Academy Award nominations in the winter of 1995, the blah perception of the film changed. I was a student at Ohio University at the time and knew people who'd worked on the film when it shot two hours away at the Mansfield Reformatory, but the reaction — particularly from my playwriting mentor who dissed it as bloated and self-indulgent — had been ho-hum enough to scare me off until I was home for spring break in March.

I walked out of that screening shocked. "The Shawshank Redemption" was a masterpiece. How could so many seemingly smart people have failed to connect with such a lovely, humanistic work? And how could so many of these people have blown it again 23 years later on "The Mist?"

The Mist's redemption was a long time coming

In terms of marketability, "The Mist" had less going against it than "The Shawshank Redemption." It was a Stephen King adaptation with monsters and scares, and while Frank Darabont had taken a commercial/critical stumble with 2001's "The Majestic," both of his previous King movies had been nominated for multiple Oscars including Best Picture. He didn't have an A-list movie star in the lead, but the cast was stocked with highly respected character actors.

Released over the 2007 Thanksgiving holiday, "The Mist" received mixed reviews and bombed at the U.S. box office. Some of us got it, but others, especially fans of King's story, were repulsed by the jarringly grim spin Darabont placed on the material. There were no Academy Award nominations coming for "The Mist," nor was there a home entertainment resuscitation in the offing. This was a different, angrier animal than "The Shawshank Redemption."

Speaking with /Film's Eric Vespe on the 15th anniversary of the film's release, Darabont seems at peace with the cult-film groove into which "The Mist" seems to have settled. According to the filmmaker:

"The movie does hang in there. It does rise in the estimation of the audience's consciousness. I mean, other than the audience that sees movies like that one. I'm not comparing it to John Carpenter's 'The Thing,' but it does have that dynamic of the people who dig it have discovered it, shared it, and it does have this reputation that clings to it. And that's really satisfying. That's really a happy thing, for me, anyway."

The Mist makes the most of not a lot

Frank Darabont thinks the film's desolate tone and gore have given it a bit of emotional heft over the last 15 years. "General audiences don't necessarily cotton to a certain kind of experience," he says. "But if the movie really has some weight, some quality to it, it does accrue. It takes a while, but it does accrue." He cites Brian De Palma's "Scarface" alongside "The Thing" as a film that sparked the ire of critics and mainstream moviegoers due to its violence.

I slightly, respectfully disagree, if only because those films were awash in practically staged and executed bloodshed. Their squibs, dismemberments, and hideous mutations were disgustingly tangible. Made for a far-too-low $18 million (to protect his creative freedom), "The Mist" occasionally asks the audience to accept a kind of CG fakery that went out of style with the crocodile scene in "Eraser" (directed by Darabont's one-time writing partner, Chuck Russell). Sometimes, this kind of visual thrift takes the viewer out of a film.

Darabont seems to have sensed this, so he taps into his inner Rod Serling, and gives us a crackling big-screen take on "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street." I revisited "The Mist" for the first time in ages last night (in its black-and-white incarnation which excuses the film's budgetary limitations by making it feel like a Playhouse 90 production), and the performances, from Thomas Jane's conflicted father to Marcia Gay Harden's unhinged evangelical Christian, override every single technical shortcoming and then some. "The Mist" is an infuriating, fearlessly provocative horror flick that leaves you shaking in disbelief.

I've watched enough shoestring-budget genre flicks to know that production value is a luxury, not a right. It's not about stretching your dollar, but rather a matter of maximizing your resources — and that typically means leaning on your craftsmanship and your cast. Darabont played to his strengths, and, 15 years later, has every reason to be proud of "The Mist."