by COLE SMITHEY & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t took director Frank Darabont writing a better ending for Stephen King's 1980 novella before he could tackle making the best legitimate horror movie to come out in years. A father and young son become stranded in a populated strip-mall grocery store in Maine where a deadly mist enshrouds the area as part of a terrible storm. Hidden in the thick fog are gigantic insects and prehistoric creatures that ensnare the store's inhabitants in a grip of fear that brings out their worst and best qualities. Marcia Gay Harden is magnificent as a Christian fanatic, and Thomas Jane gives the best performance of his career in a low-budget, retro horror movie that is equal parts satire, suspense, and surprise. Stephen King's The Mist is a reminder of what a really great horror movie is all about.

It would almost be better if Stephen King's name weren't part of the title, because then there might be a chance that some could experience it from a blank-slate perspective. As it stands, Stephen King's The Mist carries a loaded pedigree of writer and director that lets the cat out of the bag. Darabont, whose filmic adaptations of Stephen King stories (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) carry strong stamps of approval, is so in tune with King's sense of timing, nuance and character development that it feels like he's getting away with something from the outset. Because Darabont and King are collaborating writers whose history together goes back to Darabont's first feature (The Woman in the Room, 1983) there is a joyful effortlessness that comes across in this collaboration like silk being drawn off a greased spool.

First, we get a charge of inside humor when the opening scene reveals family guy David Drayton (Thomas Jane) painting movie-poster artwork that is as cheesy as it is enticing. The fierce storm outside has no patience for David's pastime, and lets him know it by sending a giant tree through the room's large picture window, shattering our momentary self-satisfaction. The gale's full devastation comes painfully clear in the morning light. The lakeside house needs attention, and the family's boathouse is completely destroyed. But David is a man whose concern for property comes as a distant second to the safety of his family. There's some discussion of the loss of the tree that his grandfather planted, and we instantly know that David is the kind of person we would all like to think we are -- well intentioned and balanced. It's an empathy that will steadily increase during the film's onslaught of irrational physical danger and cult-mentality. And it's an investment of hope and belief that will be challenged to its core by the end.

David and his 9-year-old son Billy (Nathan Gamble) give their disagreeable neighbor (Andre Braugher) a ride to the town market to pick up supplies before the thick mist descends. But the dense vapor is too quick. A visit to the grocery store's loading dock gives David and a few local men a sample of what the fog hides when giant barbed tentacles attack them before they can shut the roll-up door.

Cynicism, fear and stupidity collide in a volatile mix as the group of store-trapped citizens struggle to make sense of the bizarre events escalating around them.

Darabont could never have gotten funding from a Hollywood studio to make the movie with the shock ending that it has, and so he bucked the system and did it for "seventeen and change," a dauntingly small budget that dictated a muscular approach to the material. The low-budget production constraints form a direct link to films like Hitchcock's Psycho, Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. As with those films, there's a raw excitement and intensity from the cast and crew that counterbalances King's meaty source material.

Audiences will take away different measures of meaning from King's deeply satirical story and its military-inflected dimension. It's a movie that crosses eras and puts society into a crucible of primal existence. No matter how civilized we may think we are, human tendencies for dealing with the unknown under stressful conditions -- whether from outside invaders or from the people next to us -- is remarkably predictable. But what happens inside the mind of an individual beyond the groupthink is something else entirely. You'll have to see the movie to discover that. (Rated R)

  • or