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'The Mist' review: Stephen is still King in unnerving new series

The new Spike TV show does the acclaimed author proud, expanding his 1980 horror novella beyond the supermarket into a 10-episode series. Cleanup on aisle 3!

Spike

After watching the first episode of Stephen King's "The Mist," I stepped outside, and felt unmoored. A sudden Seattle storm had blown through, drenching the yard without warning, and the skies were a menacing mosaic of gray and white, dotted with fist-like clouds. Just like the characters in the series, I'd been caught unaware by a quick and unexpected weather change, and just for a minute, the show's events still fresh in my memory, I was as unbalanced as they were.

King's original "Mist" novella is, for me, one of his finest works. It focuses on a random group of Maine grocery shoppers trapped together when a murderous mist rolls over their town. It's a fine reminder of the author's extraordinary skill -- he can create a terrifying menace out of dogs ("Cujo"), cars ("Christine"), clowns ("It") and yes, even weather (supernatural weather, but still). Anyone can invent a terrifying bogeyman -- King's work rises to the top because of the people he creates, real and flawed and relatable, sometimes jerks, sometimes heroes, always human.

Spike's new series based on "The Mist" (which was made into a Frank Darabont film in 2007, with a controversial altered ending) wasn't written by King, but it does the author proud. Fans may see a throwback to King's "The Stand" when a uniformed soldier (Okezie Morro) wakes up in the woods, panicked and amnesiac. Is his unit responsible for creating and unleashing the deadly mist? For a while, he seems to be the only one who knows just how terrifying it's about to become.

Soon, we meet more residents of scenic Bridgeville, Maine. In introducing them, the show plays with cliches we've seen before. The teacher (Alyssa Sutherland) suspended for daring to teach sex ed while still keeping her only daughter (Gus Birney) on a tight leash. The daughter's eyeliner-wearing bisexual best friend (Russell Posner) whose dad has rejected him. The macho cop (Darren Pettie) with the quarterback son (Luke Cosgrove). 

But the characters turn out to be more complex than first sketched, and when the deadly mist threatens them, we care.

The first episode builds slowly, with the title monster staying mostly offscreen until there are about 12 minutes left in the episode. But once the mist finally rolls over the town, the wait proves worth it. Things happen fast, and while the first episode only has a smattering of the gore shown in the recent trailer, blood does flow. (In one early bloodbath, the victim is so deserving you're actually cheering for the deadly mist.)

There's a "Walking Dead" vibe floating in "The Mist." As with that AMC zombie show, here we have a mixed-up melange of ordinary people who find themselves trapped in a familiar place turned deadly, fighting an unnatural enemy they don't really understand. Some may find their inner Daryl Dixon or Rick Grimes and emerge as fighters or leaders. Others seem likely to be driven mad by the horrors -- previews reveal Frances Conroy's character is headed that way, and after an incident in the first episode, it's tough to blame her. 

But the characters are welcomingly unpredictable -- an apparent domestic-violence victim has a dark side, the quarterback defends the bisexual friend against another jock, the prudish mom has her reasons. The Spike series expands the novella into 10 one-hour episodes, bringing in more characters and settings within the misted-over town, so viewers will have a chance to settle in and unpack Bridgeville's many secrets slowly. We lost the grocery-store setting, but the town mall seems ready to step in as the place where townspeople of all types meet up to be terrified and make terrible decisions about how to survive, a sort of Peyton Place of panic.

There's an old story about a zoo in which the final cage promises "the most deadly animal on Earth," and holds only a mirror. That's what I kept thinking of while watching "The Mist." King always knew he could create the most horrifying supernatural creature, but we humans could out-evil it without even breaking a sweat. When the mist rolls in, it may obscure the townspeople's vision, but it reveals their souls. And now I'm really scared.

"The Mist" premieres on Spike on June 22 at 10 p.m. ET. It will be available in the UK and Australia later this summer via Netflix, though no date has been announced yet. 

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