Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Mist in Black & White

(Since this a review of an alternate version of a film that’s been out for a while, it probably contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen The Mist, read at your own discretion.)

When Stephen King wrote his classic novella The Mist, first printed in the great collection Dark Forces in 1980, he envisioned it as a throwback to the black & white creature features of the 50s, particularly referencing the films of Bert I. Gordon. Although it may well be the most cinematic of King’s works, it wasn’t until 2007 that Frank Darabont was able to bring it to the screen, and although Darabont shared King’s vision, by this time a black & white film was seen as a commercial impossibility. Technology, however, offered new options. Additional features have long been a staple on DVD releases, and with the advent of digital filming, it is no longer necessary to cut a negative to get a print of the movie, so removing the color is relatively simple. Therefore, on the 2-disc version of The Mist, the most interesting feature is a presentation of the movie in black & white. As someone who loves old movies, and who liked the color version of the movie, I was eager to see if this works.

Black & white is, of course, a “retro” look for movies, and it does give the movie a timeless look, putting it more squarely in the locale of 50s/60s movies like THEM! Or Night of the Living Dead, although the violence is obviously more graphic than anything seen in 1954. The major advantage of black & white photography is the starkness of the contrast in the images, which brought out small features unnoticed originally. For example, the spider-creatures have some very unusual looking teeth. There is also an inherent spookiness in the shadows of b & w photography, which has given the old film noirs their distinctive look.

The major downside of this version is the movie was not shot in black & white. This is a decision, along with film stock, whether or not to go digital, etc., that informs many of the artistic choices in shooting the film. Lighting, costuming, set design, and makeup decisions are made with an eye toward how the film will look in theaters. (The makeup used on performers in the Gold Age of Hollywood, in fact, was a light green, which made skin tone show up well in b& w.). For this reason, The Mist in Black & White doesn’t look quite like a b & w movie, but a color movie with the color turned off. It doesn’t look quite natural.

As for as the movie itself, the elements which worked well in the theatrical version still work here. There is a claustrophobic sense of suspense, and you feel the growing desperation of the characters as their hopes begin to fail. If you liked it in color, no reason you shouldn’t like it in black & white.

I’d like to recap a few differences between the movie and the original story, and my opinion of the changes. There were three major changes that I caught, not counting the new characters and sub-plots added to stretch out the story. (Here’s where the spoilers start.)

First of all, the suicide of the two soldiers is moved. In the story, as soon as the soldiers realize something’s happened, they hang themselves, and in the film it is moved toward the end of the action. I think the story version is much creepier. There’s something about the idea of these two young men, who know more than the rest what’s going on, seeing the mist and the first thing to come out of it, and saying, that’s it, we’re fucked beyond hope, and deciding it would be better to die than try to survive. Moving this mutes the horror of it, in my opinion.

Secondly, the fate of David Drayton’s wife. In the story, the survivors try to reach his wife, but can’t get to the lake house because of fallen trees, while in the movie, they reach it to find her killed by the spider-things. While the movie’s treatment is more visually arresting, the true horror is in the story. Not knowing the fate of a loved one, but imagining the worst, is more horrifying than anything you could know. I would have preferred the ambiguity of the story.

The final change, and the one I do like, is the controversial ending. In the story, it ends with the survivors journeying on through an endless mist, hoping to find some limit to it. In the movie, David Drayton is driven to the end of his hope and makes a tragic and fateful choice. This has been one of the more polarizing things to have happened in movies in a long time. Some people love it for its gut-wrenching impact, while others passionately hate it because of Drayton’s mistake. I’m with the former, but there is no right or wrong answer, you’ll have to judge for yourself. And you should.


Craig Clarke said...

As much as I love the story (and respect Darabont), this film was never on my "must-see" list. However, now that I know it's available in black and white (classic film buff that I am), I may just have to give it a shot.

As for the ending, I don't mind when characters make bad choices that seem natural -- I only mind when screenwriters make characters make bad choices for the sake of moving the plot in the direction they envisioned. This one gets my approval. ;)

KentAllard said...

As you probably already know, I'm an old movie buff, too, and have a great love for B & W. Unfortunately, it is today seen as inferior, where it actually is a completely different aesthetic. Most Americans under 30 (40?) won't watch a black & white flick, and they don't know what they're missing.

Craig Clarke said...

What amazes me is the sheer amount of people over that age that won't watch B&W. My mother refused to watch anything that wasn't in color.

I was talking recently to a co-worker (who just turned 50) about watching old movies, and she asked, "But you watch them colorized, right?"

I did my best acting ever right then, hiding my full-body cringe.

My favorites are from the 1930s and '40s. They made crap back then, too, but it just seems like there was less of it.

KentAllard said...

My mom's the same way.

Here I present my pet theory of why unsuccessful movies of yore weren't as bad as failures of today, totally without facts or research to back it up:

In the 30s and 40s, the studios still controlled production, which meant there were minimum standards of professionalism. A movie of that day may have lacked a creative spark necessary to make it memorable, but even in the worst of them, there was adequate lighting, set design, continuity, etc., and at least solid if unimaginative direction. If a movie failed in those days, it probably turned out dull but watchable. Today's failures tend to be cross-the-board, and on the truly bad films, everything is bad about them.

So, a bad movie from 1948: kind of boring.
A bad movie in 2008: A psyche-destroying disaster.

This is also why there are so few good "B" movies today.

Craig Clarke said...

I agree. In addition, because of the assembly line style of production back then, you hired the professionals: the ones who, while they may not win you any acclaim, would always deliver a serviceable product. Some of the busier actors, like Joan Blondell for example, might be working on one film during the day and another at night.

You rarely had a movie with people who had never directed, written, or acted in a movie before -- an occurrence that is far too common today.