Warning: This article discusses key plot points of several recent films.
In the final moments of Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” the “Shawshank” director’s bid at a Stephen King-fueled redemption of his own, there seems to be some solace in store for the characters. After a days-long assault from a host of prehistoric monsters in a tiny Maine supermarket (among them pterodactyls, a scorpion the size of a jet and Marcia Gay Harden), our dutiful hero and his shrinking band of sane-minded survivors rush away from the store. With a fleeting sense of hope, they drive south into the milky white cloud that gives the film its title.
Up until that point, the movie had freely killed characters typically off limits, including a sweet grocery clerk who dies suddenly from a sting that makes her throat look like a watermelon. But now the survivors drive through the mist, away from that, and they finally seem at peace.
Then it begins. David Dayton, played stolidly by Thomas Jane, trolls up the driveway of his quaint lakeside home and finds his wife wrapped in a spider web. He mutters to himself, and after obligatory point-and-shoot looks of grief, the group drives on, intent to go as far as it can.
It’s not long before the old truck chugs its final drop of gas. The mist still surrounds them. There’s no sign of anyone else. The ticks of ravenous monsters begin to close in.
David pulls out a pistol. “There are only four bullets left,” he says. But there are five people in the car, besides him an old woman, an old man, a pretty teacher and David’s grade-school son, who begins to awake from a nap. The old man says they gave it their best shot – “no one can say we didn’t,” he reassures nobody in particular – and with that, as the boy’s eyes open with just enough time to see his father point the pistol in the direction of his head, the camera cuts to the outside of the truck. There are four gunshots that make it clear David has shot everyone but himself.
And right then, after suggestive sounds from the blurry wilderness that surrounds him, a military force emerges from the mist. It’s a quarantine team collecting survivors and exterminating the last of the creatures. David has killed his only child for nothing.
Get it? It’s daring! It’s existential! It’s . meaningless. I sat on this for a while, because unlike many others (including the Daily’s critic, who said the movie “stalls in a succession of mud puddles”), I found the better part of “The Mist” an inspired slate of creature-feature horrors. If not useful as a moral exercise, it is as a play on a classic genre cliché – sic monsters on townsfolk! – and it works as a simple, progressively nasty thriller.
Better yet, “The Mist” knowingly tempers its allegorical ambition so that it doesn’t undercut the value of the spectacle (even when the resident religious fanatic takes over, her inevitable human sacrifice quickly becomes monster food), at least until the cruel, greedy conclusion. Darabont is so desperate to make us sick with apocalyptic anxiety that he wakes the little boy just before his father shoots him so we know he saw what was coming to him. The zeal with which Darabont enters the military saviors directly after immediately gives him away: This is a stunt. It betrays the characters as much as it does the audience for the sake of a soulless, nonsensical downer.
But as vial as Darabont’s aims for “The Mist” turned out to be, and as utterly inane as that final sequence is, the ending is worth discussion outside of its merits because I imagine the opposite conclusion – even one as simple as allowing the characters to disappear into the mist with no indication of their fate – would likely have inspired an even more averse reaction from much of the audience. It’s a familiar condemnation of the American insistence on a happy ending even when there clearly isn’t one logically possible, a final, optimistic image transparently tacked on to salvage an otherwise bleak, hopeless narrative.
Don’t worry, we’re still talking about movies. This audience outrage arises no more often than it does within the science-fiction and horror genres; scarcely a new film is released without some blog chatter about how the original ending was sliced by the studio to broaden the audience or placate test-screening crowds.
Make no mistake: There are too many movies that aren’t allowed to follow their natural courses because some 200-person theater in Minneapolis or San Antonio decided they’d rather not see the protagonist meet her demise. Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” is a recent culprit. The low-budget British production, well-hyped in horror circles last year, follows a group of young women who head into an uncharted Appalachian cave system and fall victim to nocturnal creatures as viciously as they do personal anxieties. In the film’s original ending, the lone survivor passes out after she momentarily evades the beasts and dreams she escapes the cave. As she drives away deliriously, the ghost of another climber who she left for dead appears next to her in the truck. Then she wakes up, still in the cave, no closer to an escape than we left her. The end.
In the American release, the film cuts to black after her friend’s ghost appears in the truck, a dramatic shift from the initial vision that also leaves a key plot point conspicuously unresolved. The boneheaded change was the product of a test screening.
The problem is that a film like “The Descent” is grouped with one like Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” the director’s unrelenting zombie movie in which a devastating infection wipes out London and yet three of the principal characters make it at the end. There were a number of alternate endings conceived and a couple were even filmed, inspiring Fox Searchlight to re-release the film a month after its original release date in the summer of 2002 with the bleaker ending to appease fans disappointed the movie didn’t take its bloodlust to the end.
But whereas “The Descent” is much more about internalized horrors than it is the ones that inhabit the cave, “28 Days Later” deals with outside trauma and the ability of the characters to fight back and survive. Though both of these movies fall under horror’s most brutal and unforgiving wing, they require different conclusions, and yet fans swiftly decried Boyle’s decision to provide relief in “28 Days Later” when the alternatives just didn’t make sense to its spirit. For perspective, consider the film’s sequel, “28 Weeks Later,” directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, which masterfully (and appropriately) closes with precisely the opposite sentiment. It makes sense to have hope in the first chapter of the story even as it seems slips away in the second.
This knee-jerk response has deemed too many movies soft when they simply find the proper narrative closure. It’s this perception that deluded Darabont into thinking “The Mist” with any kind of reason. The final scene is a marked shift from the short story, which is not particularly relevant, and from the film’s tone leading up to it, which is crucial. Though his movie works elementally as a thriller, Darabont clearly had loftier aims, and they are easily readable without the cheap shot he hurls at his audience in the final moments. It might seem too easy to let David and his unlikely band of survivors escape their apparent fates, but particularly in this genre, sometimes positive release is the braver choice. It’s a courage Darabont didn’t have, and sometimes it’s too easy not to appreciate the filmmakers who do.