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'The Mist' at 15: Greg Nicotero compares Stephen King adaptation to John Carpenter's 'The Thing'

A shape-shifting parasite from outer space and a horde of monsters from another dimension tend to bring out the worst in humanity.

By Josh Weiss
The Thing (1982); The Mist (2007)

In the early-to-mid 2000s, director Frank Darabont pursued a contemporary follow-up to John Carpenter's The Thing with a SYFY miniseries penned by his former assistant and future Aquaman man scribe, David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick.

While the project never came to fruition, Darabont didn't give up hope of making a throwback-style creature feature (one that was part 1950s B-movie and part classic Twilight Zone episode), whose underlying themes exposed the darkness lurking inside every single one of us. The acclaimed filmmaker behind The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile made that ambition a reality in 2007 with the release of his third Stephen King adaptation: The Mist.

Based upon the 1980 novella of the same name (a piece of writing Darabont had wanted to bring to the screen since the very start of his directing career), the movie follows the residents of a small Maine town as they barricade themselves inside a local grocery store against a strange mist containing a nightmare-inducing menagerie of inter-dimensional creatures. The giant arthropods and dog-sized spiders are appalling, of course, but at the end of the day, they're just animals acting on instinct. These semi-Lovecraftian horrors are less of the main focus and more of a conduit through which to explore how thin the veneer of civilized society really is. Once the modern conveniences and illusion of safety melt away, fear, paranoia, and anarchy become our default.

"That was a great shoot," recalls Greg Nicotero — who handled the practical monster effects under his KNB EFX Group banner — during a recent Zoom conversation with SYFY WIRE. "It was really interesting because we shot in Shreveport, Louisiana. We were on location for a couple days and then the rest of the shoot was [in the supermarket set]. That whole supermarket was built on a soundstage that we filled with smoke every day. And Frank did what Frank does best, which is he assembles this amazing cast of characters and just lets you into that world with all these different people."

Having just come off an episode of The Shield, Darabont opted for a more down and dirty approach on The Mist, shooting it guerilla-style on a compressed production timeline. "We only shot for six weeks," Nicotero says. "We shot six-day weeks [and] I think we shot that movie in 36 days. That’s like three Walking Dead episodes."

Like the director's previous outings in the world of Stephen King, The Mist remains lovingly faithful to its source material...right up until its emotional gut punch of an ending. Not wanting his son or fellow survivors to die in agony at the claws and tentacles of the strange beasts lurking about, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) shoots them all with the four bullets left to them. He staggers out of the car, ready to face a terrible fate, only to learn that his mercy killings were in vain. Had the group just held out for a few more moments, they would have been saved by the military. David drops to his knees and lets out an agonized wail. He doesn't stop screaming and never will.

"I'll never forget going to the premiere in New York and Stephen King saying, ‘Man, I wish I would have thought to end the book that way,'" Nicotero says. "Because in the book, they kind of just drive off. But the fact that he's in the car with them, he pulls the trigger, then the mist clears, and you see the truck go by with Melissa McBride [and her kids]. I remember reading the script for the first time and I'm like, ‘Frank, you can't do that.’ And he did it."

This conclusion horrified a lot of people at the time, going against the usual Hollywood mandate of the traditional happy ending. Most risk-averse studios want audiences to leave the theater with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Thankfully, Darabont stuck to his guns, refusing to change this audacious and mean-spirited reveal that gives the film its lasting impact. Had David made it out alive with his son, we probably wouldn't be discussing The Mist today.

"I really feel like The Mist has a lot of similarities to John Carpenter's The Thing, a movie that was disturbing and dark and took you to places that you didn't want to potentially be," Nicotero concludes. "But in retrospect, people applauded those choices. I know with John and his relationship with The Thing, without a doubt, that was what happened. And I think The Mist lives in the same world."

In the mood for more Stephen King goodness? All three seasons of Mr. Mercedes are now streaming on Peacock.