A good ol' fashioned ghost story with all the fixin's...that's John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980). Heavily criticized upon its initial release for not living up to the expectations created by Carpenter’s own Halloween (1978), critics and audiences of the day were obviously missing the point – that Carpenter wasn’t looking to carbon-copy Halloween’s formula but rather sell his idea of a cinematic equivalent to sitting around the camp fire relaying scary stories. Over the years The Fog has grown on me as just that; a spooky good time. It’s a moody piece with some very terrifying moments. But it’s not Halloween and personally, I’m okay with that. Irvin Yablans had agreed to produce the picture following Halloween’s success. For reasons never entirely disclosed by Carpenter (his working relationship with Yablans had been a good experience) the director instead went with Avco Embassy to make The Fog – infuriating Yablans and creating a minor rift in their professional relationship.
It is perhaps pointless to view The Fog as a companion piece to Halloween and yet given the close proximity of both releases it’s practically impossible not to partner them together. Perhaps part of the problem with The Fog is that, unlike Halloween, whose murderous antagonist, Michael Myers is immediately known to us, the mystery surrounding what’s in the fog is not entirely revealed until midway through the movie. As such we’re expected to fear something we’ve never seen and arguably cannot relate to because the fog itself has no concrete form. Nevertheless, Carpenter imbues the beginning of his story with some very eerie touches; a kinetic energy coursing through the isolated town of Antonio Bay that causes lights to flicker and dim, a chair to inexplicably move across the room, and, cars to suddenly turn on their headlamps and horns. In some ways the beginning of The Fog plays like an ominous precursor to Poltergeist (1982). But Carpenter isn’t really interested in impressing us with levitating objects or even inanimate ones miraculously come to life. No, he wants us to feel the unease of a sleepy little hamlet being reckoned with because of a secret terrible chapter in its history.
Like Halloween, The Fog is immeasurably blessed by Carpenter’s underscoring – this time more forlorn, low key and somber – a few bars of a piano solo over a single sustained synthetized note that seems to loom large on the horizon just like the fog itself. The film’s pre-title sequence contains an exceptional cameo by John Houseman as a craggy sea captain dangling his pocket watch and telling ghost stories around the campfire to a group of decidedly curious school children. This sequence was actually shot on a sound stage with a traveling matte of the California coastline at dusk later added in for the pan tilt and dissolve into the opening credits.
Unlike Halloween, The Fog is very much an ensemble piece, one that is perhaps trying a little too hard to be ‘like’ its predecessor while also making valiant attempts to link its pedigree to Psycho’s even more distant and glorious counterpoint – casting not only Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis (nee Kyes and both Halloween alumni) in supporting roles as hapless grifter and bored social secretary respectively, but also by having Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh appear as the town’s somewhat dotty mayor. The script written by Carpenter and Debra Hill also finds room for cameos by Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau (then Carpenter’s wife) and an even briefer appearance from Carpenter, casting himself as the gooney-looking caretaker of a church. Yet, in retrospect The Fog has no driving force to propel the audience through its dark ride of chills; no single protagonist to root for. Perhaps even Carpenter realized the error in this construction. For the aforementioned ‘stars’ are never put in harm’s way for very long and do not contribute to the film’s rising body count; the victims instead briefly introduced to us as cardboard cutout nobody’s who find themselves being hacked or gutted by fish hooks coming out of the fog.
On this outing, the tale involved the unsuspecting population of Antonio Bay; a sleepy southern California fishing village built on the ruins of a leper colony whose ghosts are destined to avenge their own fateful murders by seeping into ‘the fog’. The star of the film is arguably Adrienne Barbeau as K.P.P.D radio disc jockey Stevie Wayne; a jazz music host who broadcasts her night time musical program from a remote lighthouse off of Spivey Point. For this vantage Stevie can see the whole of Antonio Bay; a bird’s eye view of that low lying bank of glowing fog as it creeps, seeps and leaps into town in search of its revenge.
While playing along the windswept beach Stevie’s young son, Andy (Ty Mitchell) find an interesting relic – a piece of driftwood with the carved name of a fateful ship of lepers who met with their untimely end by smashing against the craggy shoreline, thanks in part to misdirection from the nearby community during a violent storm. Current pastor, Father Robert Malone (Hal Holbrook) is a direct descendant of the priest responsible for plotting to kill the lepers and discovers just how sordid the town’s history is after a chunk of stone falls from one of the walls in his rectory to reveal a leather-bound journal hidden inside.
After the crew from a lazy fishing trawler moored off the coast is found slaughtered aboard ship their bodies are brought in for autopsy by Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) who previously has picked up hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis) on the side of the road. Nick and Liz become lovers, their pas deux momentarily interrupted by an ominous knock at the door – one of the fog’s ghosts come to call. But before Nick can get to the door the clock chimes midnight, breaking the spell and thus saving his life. Instead Liz finds herself being stalked by one of the dead crew from the trawler, the body getting up from the operating table with scalpel in hand to do a bit of his own creative cutting. The movie’s premise is that the undead can only wreak havoc on the living between a quarter to and midnight; the bewitching hour. Regrettably, this doesn’t explain why Liz is almost gutted at the morgue in the middle of the afternoon while waiting for Nick to return.
As the town prepares to mark its 100th anniversary Father Malone makes Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) aware of Antonio Bay’s brutal history. Meanwhile, the ghosts descend on Stevie’s home where babysitter Mrs. Kobritz (Regina Waldon) is preparing to put Andy to bed. Frightened by the same ominous knock at the door, Mrs. Kobritz nevertheless opens it, unleashing the fog who quickly claims her for its own. But Andy manages to escape, thanks to Nick and Liz’s quick thinking. They are chased up the road by the fog, taking refuge in the church along with Kathy and Father Malone who at last confronts the ghost of Blake the pirate and his crew, offering him the golden cross that was the town’s booty after they deliberately caused Blake’s ship to sink off the coast of Antonio Bay. The ghosts reclaim the cross but seemingly spare Father Malone before vanishing at the stroke of midnight. Relieved at having endured and presumably escaped the curse of Antonio Bay everyone goes home and Father Ted prepares to lock up the church only to discover that Blake has returned, this time to kill him.
The Fog is a fairly unsettling movie. But one must be willing to set aside prejudices and comparisons, and in some cases even accept flaws in continuity and basic story-telling to fully enjoy the experience as nothing more than mindless fluff with a modicum of fear factored in. Evidently, some audiences were not willing to do this. After a disastrous preview Carpenter went back to the drawing board, re-shot and reediting his footage with more obvious scares thrown in to satisfying the audience's blood-lust: the result, an often disturbing – generally unsettling and thoroughly engrossing minor masterpiece – quite successful at telling the tale without succumbing to the urge to blow the film’s fragile narrative all out of proportion.
Does The Fog work? Superficially speaking – yes. Is it a perfect ghost story? No. But perhaps this was never its intent. What The Fog remains is an expertly crafted yarn about restless spirits of the deep come to exact their pound of flesh for injustices done to them so very long ago. One can choose to poo-poo the logistics of the exercise, but in the end the film is what Carpenter and Hill set out to make – a spook story with a few good chills factored in along the way.
MGM has reissued The Fog twice on DVD though oddly enough, not on Blu-ray. Although the packaging has changed the transfer quality and extra features are virtually identical. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits a relatively smooth characteristic with dated '80s colors. Flesh tones are often nicely rendered though at times they appear a tad pasty. Contrast levels are excellent. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are relatively clean though with a slight yellowish tint. Occasionally age related artifacts appear but do not distract. The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital remastering effort. Carpenter’s unsettling score is the benefactor here. Dialogue continues to sound somewhat unnatural. Extras include a thorough retrospective on the film with interviews from Carpenter and cast members, an audio commentary and theatrical trailer. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)