(CNN) -- It's the end of the world -- again!
Thomas Jane (left) tries to keep his wits while coping with "The Mist."
Doomsday scenarios have become a familiar sight in the movies since the beginning of the Cold War, and for the most part, "Stephen King's The Mist," from a King novella, sticks closely to the archetype.
That's not a problem. If you've seen writer-director Frank Darabont's films (including two King adaptations, "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile," that earned him Oscar nominations), you'll know he's an old-time Hollywood classicist at heart. It's his ability to reinvest these familiar strains with meaning that's impressive.
David Drayton (Thomas Jane, who holds the screen effortlessly here) is with his son at the grocery store when the fog rolls in, and with it a terrified and bleeding local, yelling how there's something nasty in the mist.
The market is busy -- people are restocking after a big storm -- and an alarm cuts through the building like a chill. It sounds like a bomb warning; the sound you might hear in the event of an attack. A man rushes out to his car, but no sooner has he been swallowed up by the mist than he lets rip a blood-curdling scream. Nobody's eager to follow in his footsteps.
As is traditional in this kind of story the phones are dead, so the good people of Castle Rock are on their own. Curiously, they're not much concerned that the mist itself might be toxic -- surely the most rational explanation. It's only when a giant, grasping tentacle slides into the loading bay that they begin to appreciate the true nature of the threat -- and even then, those shoppers who missed the show have a hard time buying it.
Never a filmmaker to run when he can walk, Darabont lets the horror build through unease, incredulity and mounting suggestion. Cannily, he keeps Mark Isham's score in his back pocket, and reaches for it sparingly. In one of his best bits, a volunteer ties a rope around his waist and ventures into the unknown. Darabont stays fixed in the store and lets the pull on the rope tell the story. Pure suspense.
When the monsters do reveal themselves, the CGI work is seamless and properly repellent, but don't worry yourself about where they come from or why. Darabont's focus is always squarely on the humans, who quickly splinter into competing factions reflecting their own racial, class and educational prejudices.
The mental mist that clouds everyone's judgment is the real theme of the story: denial, frustration, despair, and enough reckless courage to keep the body count going up. And when it comes to scary, Marcia Gay Harden's born-again proselytizer is fearsome enough to convince Drayton and his clique to take their chances with the beasties.
Pleasingly tight in scale (Darabont brought over the production team from TV's "The Shield"), "The Mist" shoots itself in the foot with a couple of clumsy episodes. I'll accept giant tentacles, but it's hard to believe that Drayton can't convince the townfolk to go take a peek at the evidence. Stalwart character actors Toby Jones, William Sadler and Frances Sternhagen make strong impressions, but Harden's religious rapture sucks all the air out of the room (it's always hard to make fundamentalists seem credible). A belated attempt to "humanize" a younger couple rings hollow and might have been cut.
"The Mist" is far from perfect, and it's woefully humorless. But such reservations have to be weighed against a mind-blowing ending, so bold I can hardly believe Darabont got away with it. Don't they test-screen movies any more?
"The Mist" may not be Oscar bait, but it's a horror movie of real conviction. It deserves to be a hit.