As one of what novelist Stephen King calls his Constant Readers, I was as jazzed as every other monster-lovin’ geek when word came that filmmaker Frank Darabont was making a movie of King’s classic novella, The Mist. Cynics suggested that after tanking big time with his Frank Capra homage, The Majestic, Darabont was running to King for cover. Perhaps, but who could blame him? Adapting King’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999) brought the writer-director three Oscar nominations, and the good-luck chain actually stretches back to 1977, when King sold a 23-year-old Darabont the rights — for all of one dollar — to an old story, The Woman in the Room. The short film that followed was Darabont’s ticket to Hollywood, and a life that any sad-sack horror nut (including this one) would envy.

Why, then, is The Mist such a disaster? How did a straightforward little tale about prehistoric monsters gobbling down the hapless citizens of a modern-day town become such a lumbering and depressing movie?

As the film opens, a weirdly thick fog is settling over Castle Rock, Maine, after an unusually violent storm. With the power out, book-jacket artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane, subtle and strong) leaves his wife at home and heads into town with his 9-year-old son (Nathan Gamble) to buy supplies. As they wait in a long grocery-store checkout line, a bloodied man (Jeffrey DeMunn) runs in, screaming, “There’s something in the mist!” Soon, giant eel-like tentacles slip under the loading-dock door and drag away Norm the bag boy, a gruesome sight that only Drayton and three others witness. Neither King nor Darabont explains just why the dozens of other people inside the store can’t hear Norm’s bloodcurdling screams, but in any case, it falls to Drayton to convince the skeptical customers that there’s danger in that there mist.

What follows is a lot of crying and speechifying and not nearly enough people eating. At just over two hours, The Mist is the shortest movie Darabont has made, and it’s still too long. Less chatter, more monster, please. There are two terrific attack sequences, one of which finds Drayton jabbing a string mop that’s been set ablaze at flying pterodactyls as they dive for humans on aisle three. Later, he leads an exploratory mission to the drugstore next door, only to encounter massive spiders that shoot acidic webs.

Good stuff, but a clue to what’s ultimately awry in this movie can be found in that drugstore sequence. A retired schoolteacher, played by the great Frances Sternhagen, comes face to face with an eight-legged freak and, rather than screaming, she sets it on fire with a lighter and a can of bug spray. Now, an old lady zapping a giant spider with a can of Black Flag is the kind of detail that makes Stephen King fun to read, but Darabont lets the moment (and others like it) rush past, as if bug humor is a bit beneath him.

He gives similarly short shrift to the creatures: They’re beautifully ugly, but you get the feeling that the filmmaker isn’t all that interested in them, which is odd, because to make a good horror movie, a director’s got to love his demons best. Instead, Darabont darts obsessively among the various factions of trembling humans within the store, as if he really believes that some great truth about humankind is going to be revealed by this gaggle of stock characters.

King’s novella is 27 years old, but Darabont the screenwriter hasn’t updated a thing — the dialogue is straight out of the book — nor has he stripped away the author’s youthful excess. (King, bless him, is no Shakespeare.) This is particularly true of the villain, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), the town loon, who waves her Bible in the air and declares the mist creatures to be God’s wrath. King has always relished a mouthy zealot, and Darabont may mean Carmody to represent the fundamentalist extremes at play in a fear-based America, but listening to her holler for the length of a movie is like being stuck at a bus stop next to a Baptist with a bullhorn.

All this would be disappointing, but not infuriating, if the film’s ending weren’t so unforgivably bad. Darabont abruptly abandons his master’s text in the movie’s final minutes, sending Drayton and his little boy a plot twist that wouldn’t be fair to reveal, but which is so distasteful and untrue to all that’s come before that it’s a slap in the face to characters and audience alike. The last word in King’s story was “hope,” and while Darabont certainly has the right to head in the opposite direction — in our own monster-filled world, happy endings are harder than ever to buy — he does so in a manner that’s both pretentious and cruel. The Mist made me want to scream, but for all the wrong reasons.

THE MIST | Written and directed by FRANK DARABONT, based on the novella by STEPHEN KING | Produced by DARABONT and LIZ GLOTZER | Released by MGM and The Weinstein Company | Citywide

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