Upon further reflection, I think I view a lot of scary movies as more interesting than frightening, but perhaps I don't watch films that would truly frighten me. I'm planning to show the class Psycho later this year (I may change my mind and show a different Hitchcock film . . . but Psycho is such a classic, it seems wrong to skip it), and there's a film that certainly no longer has the ability to frighten but which is certainly involving and fascinating. I think that may be all I ask of a horror film. I like fantasy or science fictional elements, and I like to be surprised, but I'm not sure "being frightened" is what I'm after.
This past week, however, I watched The Mist, written and directed by Frank Darabont and based on the novella by Stephen King. I found the film, in its best moments, truly startling and horrifying, but I think what made me take a break from the movie with half an hour left was less fear than dread. The movie is unrelentingly bleak. Terrible things happen, but it's not the kind of "horror porn" that informs the Saw movies, for example. Films like that are depressing for me (and I avoid them) because there's something so terribly cynical about treating characters that way. The Mist treats its characters as humans, so the existential terror feels more personal.
"Making it personal" is key, to me, in the movie's success. Much of the camera work is handheld. It's not shuddery, like Blair Witch, and it doesn't whip about, like in the Bourne films; only once did I notice it moving in a jarring way that drew attention to the camera work. By and large, it conveyed its handheld nature by moving among the characters and placing us comfortably in the action. The dialogue, too, is largely conversational. People don't say clever things. There's none of the leavening humor or snarkiness that usually creeps into horror films.
Humor gives horror audiences an escape, a release. (Horror porn, on the other hand, relies, I think, on absurdity grounded in disgust and cynicism in order to free its audience, though I'm sure some people simply wallow in such things.) Such humor is often provided by false scares: the sudden noise that turns out to be nothing; the hand on the shoulder that belongs to a friends; the music cue that signals nothing. The Mist provides no false moments. "Are you scared at this moment?" the film asks. "Good, you should be, because something bad is definitely about to happen. And now it's happening." And this is done without providing musical cues, which is part of why the film feels so different than the usual. The musical cues for terror also give us some relief, so familiar and expected are they.
The film does have a few problems, and they turn out to be a mix of script, acting and direction. A fervently religious character, played by Marcia Gay Harden, survives in all her awkwardness from King's novella. Similar to the the main character's mother in King's Carrie, she's obsessed and dangerous, but she's not believably written, somewhat too well spoken to be seen as merely deranged (she uses the word "hubris," which is woefully out of place) and too clearly in charge. A better writer would have portrayed her as a more broken character who just happens to provide a focus for people's fears. Andre Braugher's out-of-town lawyer is also miswritten and misplayed. His responses aren't believable; as written, he seems more mentally ill than the Harden character. However, Braugher plays the character forcefully, so that when Thomas Jane, in the lead role, says the Braugher is acting out of fear, the line doesn't fit; the character seems fearless. (I don't recall that character from the novella, but it's been a long time since I read it.) Darabont wisely leaves out a romance that would seem horribly ill-placed in the film; in the novella, King sells it, but it's unnecessary.