The power that cinema can exert over us is a mysterious thing. There are moments when a film will reach out and grasp us by the temples, refusing to let our gaze drift elsewhere; forcing us to consider the sermon it has to preach. And make no mistake that the director serves as preacher, delivering his view of life and humanity through the silver screen while we sit and listen in the dark and quiet. On our part, it is an act of submission, sometimes foolishly so. The extent to which we submit and the strength with which the sermon is preached is where the mystery enters in. Why does one film utterly captivate me while another finds it repulsive? Why does one story stir me to the core while another can only summon a tepid indifference?

The Mist is a masterwork, although it has not been widely regarded as such. This could be due to the fact that it masquerades as a generic horror movie of the creepy-crawly variety or that it comes with the name Stephen King attached to the front (who has a less than stellar reputation in the adaptation department). More likely, however, is that the sermon director Frank Darabont is preaching here is so bitter as to be nearly unpalatable. Audiences did not embrace it and I do not know if I can recommend it, but I cannot shake it’s visceral power. Darabont’s is an uncompromising vision of human nature in the vein of William Golding, and just like the children in The Lord of the Flies, the characters in The Mist discover that the monsters without are not nearly as terrifying as the monsters within.

Thomas Jane (The Punisher) plays David Drayton, a painter living in a small Maine town, who travels to the local mom-and-pop with his son to pick up supplies after a freak electrical storm. Half the town is there with the same thought. Within minutes, an elderly man, blood streaming down his face, runs into the store screaming, “There is something in the mist!” Following on his heels is a wall of solid vapor that rolls across the parking lot like an ethereal tsunami, enveloping the store and trapping everyone inside. It doesn’t take long for someone to test the waters, and the body count quickly rises as the isolated townspeople realize that the mist and its nasty denizens are not going to play nice.

There are other creatures stirring, however, ones that aren’t outside the walls of the grocery store. Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, Mystic River) enters into the halls of classic cinematic villainy, along with Nurse Ratched, Amon Göth, and Archibald Cunningham, as a character you hate almost from the moment they step on screen. Her Mrs. Carmody, a religious zealot of the worst flavor (the kind that can single-handedly give a black eye to an entire religion), is conniving, viperish, and loathsome. That the Academy snubbed her performance, which was easily the equal of any of the other Best Supporting nominees, is shameful.

She capitalizes on the terror without, declaring it God’s vengeance on an unrepentant land, and proceeds to whip whoever will listen to her into a fanatical frenzy. Many have seen this as a thinly veiled post-9/11 parable, but Darabont is working at something deeper and less facile than that. Listen to these telling lines:

Amanda Dunfrey: I can’t accept that. People are basically good; decent. David, we’re a civilized society!

David Dreyton: Sure, as long as the machines are working and you can dial 911. But you take those things away, you throw people in the dark, you scare the [crap] out of them – no more rules.

Are human beings, at their core, basically good or evil? Given the right set of conditions, do we all have the capability within ourselves to become an Adolf Hitler or a Ted Bundy or a Mrs. Carmody? Is there a deep vein of twisted sinfulness that courses through the river of our hearts, just waiting to erupt? Darabont brooks no argument here, stating his case in unequivocal, cold, and brutal terms. The effect is chilling. There are the stock gore moments of R-rated horror here: bloated corpses and severed torsos and things that go bump in the night. But the most terrifying parts of the film, the parts that reach out and grab you by the temples and lock your gaze with a Medusa stare, are bloodless, psychological, and painfully true.

In college, I can remember engaging in a furious debate over Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the title character does something unspeakable to her children because she sees no better alternative. I raged that she had no right to play God with the lives of others, while my volatile classmate justified her choice in light of her horrific circumstances. The Mist evokes similar emotions, for Darabont has chosen to exact a terrible price from anyone who tries to play God. Everyone who chooses to do so, everyone who decides that they are the supreme authority, everyone who takes the power of life and death into their own hands, pays in blood and pain. Expect to be angered or outraged or stunned or all three.

The ending is one of the most gut-wrenching finales I have ever experienced in a film. I have to assume that Darabont had final cut from the get go, because I cannot fathom a studio executive green lighting something so blatantly uncommercial. While it may have cost it at the box office, the final moments are what transform The Mist from better-than-average Stephen King adaptation to full-on cinematic masterpiece.

As I said previously, I do not know if I can recommend The Mist, for it is unbending and ferocious in the execution of it’s vision. I will only relate that I was utterly transfixed, and that it was a full 30 minutes before I could even form words for what I was feeling. Darabont has crafted a horror film of the most terrifying kind, where supernatural creatures serve not only to dish out scares, but to hold up a mirror to the dark and hidden places of the human soul.