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'Mist' creeps Stephen King schlockfest has moments of appeal

Seeing "Stephen King's The Mist" just might be the perfect way to cap off Black Friday, though it's a toss-up as to what audiences will think is scarier: King's little grocery shop of horrors or a WalMart parking lot packed to the curbs with cars from across the border. Oh, the humanity!

For the film version of his 1980 novella by the same name, King again called upon screenwriter-turned director Frank Darabont, who had some Oscar-worthy success bringing two other King tales, "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile," to the screen. Count on this: awards for "The Mist," if any, will be presented at a previous ceremony.

But that doesn't mean it isn't a decent creep fest.

This is the gist. A powerful sou'wester hits a small Maine town, uprooting trees, tearing down power lines and driving the ever-practical down- Easters to the store for provisions, while a heavy mist rolls in. Some speculate its source is from a nearby military installation, where a secret project is being conducted and where a flying saucer and some alien corpses are rumored to be stored.

The mist is so thick that no one -- not doomed bag boy nor feisty schoolmarm nor officious store manager -- can tell what's going on until a bleeding man emerges from the fog, screaming that there is "something" (and by "something" he's not referring to the 25-cent rocketship ride) out there.

David Drayton, a commercial artist who has brought his young son to town, is the first to take charge. He explores the store's loading dock with a bunch of macho townies named Jim and Myron and Norm, and one of them is attacked, boa-constrictor style, by an enormous tentacle that has spines that flip out like switch blades and mouths that appear out of nowhere. Bye, Norm.

Back in the market, a group of skeptics led by pompous New York lawyer Brent Norton declare the story of Norm (despite the blood and a hunk of shriveled tentacle) hooey and venture out into the mist. Bye, arrogant lawyer and skeptics.

Before long, 4-foot-long flying mantises are splatting against the store's windows, followed by pterodactyls that careen into the plate glass, break it open and dive-bomb the customers. A pincer beak plunges into the token virgin's neck, which does not end well for her. Some guy loses a big chunk of skin, another?s skin is burned off, and Hattie swallows a bottle of pain pills. Clean-up in aisles six through nine.

The customers break into factions, with one group, led by Drayton, trying to protect the group and plan an escape, and the other, led by Bible- thumping loonie (and we're not talking above-par dollars here) Mrs. Carmody, resort to prayer, because (note to self:) nothing else works when it is the End of Days.

As mass hysteria and a total breakdown of the microcosmic culture begin, some heavy-handed allegory kicks in, as we get a shopping list of examples of the ways humans can be sinister monsters, too. You've got your paranoia, your bravado, your machismo; your skepticism, fatalism, extremism. Yep. Right there in Food World, you've got your twin scourges of politics and religion, writ small.

Drayton and his posse battle their fear and their baser instincts, while cuckoo-for- Cocoa-Puffs Carmody whips the rest into a doomsday frenzy demanding human sacrifices (from Team Godless, natch) to the evil outside.

And you thought Wegmans before a Bills game was a nightmare.

Unlike King's novella, the movie has one of those "reveal the ending and you die, sucker" conclusions that wrenches loose every emotion and also packs a timely, politically loaded punch.

No expense was, well, expended on this film. Darabont cut by using two teams of cameramen from TV's "The Shield" to shoot the film with handheld cameras, resulting in an effective, on-thespot- news feeling that is further enhanced by the use of film rather than digital photography.

The film was shot in Shreveport, La., instead of Maine, and it looks it. Replacing the Atlantic coast with the Gulf coast knocks the film off kilter; the terrain doesn't look right, the store supermarket doesn't look right, and no one ever says "a-ya."

Darabont also pinched pennies by casting relative unknowns in some key roles. Thomas Jane ("The Punisher") plays David Drayton with appropriate heroic sensitivity, Laurie Holden ("The Fantastic Four") is convincing as heroine Amanda Dumfries, although until the credits rolled I was sure she was Faith Ford ("Murphy Brown"). There are some marquee names here, and their fates, both real and cinematic, are mixed. Emmywinner Andre Braugher ("The Fantastic Four") does what he can with the role of Brent Norton, but his role is thankless and his screen time minimal.

But Academy-Award nominee Marcia Gay Harden ("Mystic River") rules in the role of Mrs. Carmody, making her shrill proselytizing both plausible and insane.

Toby Jones ("Infamous"), as nebbishy assistant store manager Ollie, and Frances Sternhagen ("The Laramie Project"), as tough-as-nails teacher Irene Reppler, anchor a supporting cast that also includes Buffalo natives Jeffrey De Munn ("The Majestic") and William Sadler ("August Rush"), in pivotal roles.

THE MIST

Review: 2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones.

DIRECTOR: Frank Darabont

RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

RATING: R for violence, terror, gore and language.

THE LOWDOWN: In Stephen King country, a strange mist envelops a small town and bad things happen.

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