Wednesday, October 14, 2015

THE FOG: Blu-ray (Avco/Embassy 1980) Shout! Factory

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 own 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 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. They share the same director, but that is all. 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 have never seen and, arguably, cannot relate to because fog itself is amorphous. Personally, I think this is precisely what makes the movie scary – the fog’s shape-shifting ability to seep and creep along door frames and window sills, slithering through keyholes or under cracks in the front porch; the ghosts from Antonio Bay’s spurious past come to call anonymously, but with a decidedly insidious purpose to make the residents pay for the fateful indiscretions of their forefathers. They say revenge is a dish best served cold. Carpenter adds wet and clammy to this mix and the results are bone-chillingly perverse to say the least. Carpenter infuses the beginning of his ghost story with some very eerie touches; a kinetic energy coursing through the deserted streets that causes lights to flicker and dim, a chair to inexplicably move across s 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 terrible secret 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 synthesized 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. Houseman captures the crusty but benign integrity of an old salt tickling the terror of a group of impressionable kids. But he also manages to rattle more than a few adults sitting in the audience; yours truly among them. His narration also perfectly sets up the premise and tone for the rest of the film. So get ready to be spooked.
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 (1960)as an even more distant and glorious counterpoint – casting not only Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis (nee Kyes). Both are Halloween alumni in supporting roles as hapless grifter and bored social secretary respectively. Carpenter also has Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh appear as the town’s somewhat dotty mayor. The script, written by Carpenter and the late Debra Hill, manages to find room for cameos by Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau (then Carpenter’s wife) and an even briefer appearance by Carpenter as the goony-looking caretaker of the church. If The Fog does have a flaw, it’s that it has no driving force to propel the audience through this proverbial dark ride of chills; no single protagonist to root for or follow throughout the entire story. Perhaps even Carpenter realized this error in his 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. 
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 and out from ‘the fog’. Arguably, the star of our story is Adrienne Barbeau as K.P.P.D radio disc jockey Stevie Wayne who broadcasts her night time jazz program from a remote beacon lighthouse off Spivey Point. From this vantage, Stevie can see the whole of Antonio Bay; a bird’s eye view of that low lying bank of ominously glowing fog as it creeps, seeps and leaps into town in search of victims. While playing along the windswept beach near their home, Stevie’s young son, Andy (Ty Mitchell) find an interesting relic – a piece of driftwood belonging to the Elizabeth Dane; a tall ship whose cargo of lepers met with an untimely end by smashing against the craggy shoreline nearly a half a century earlier, thanks in part to some deliberate misdirection from the nearby community during a violent storm at sea. Current pastor of the local church, Father Robert Malone (Hal Holbrook) is a direct descendant of the priest responsible for plotting to kill these 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 of 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 a foreboding knock at the door – one of the fog’s motley spirits 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 members from the trawler, the body getting up from the operating table in the morgue with scalpel in hand to do a bit of its own creative cutting. This sequence, though nerve-jangling, doesn’t exactly gel with the movie’s premise; that the undead can only wreak havoc on the living between a quarter to and midnight; the bewitching hour. Liz’s stalker gets up in the middle of the afternoon while she is waiting for Nick to return. He doesn’t manage a kill either – collapsing instead in a heap on the floor moments before getting too close for comfort – just enough to startle Liz half to death. But the corpse isn’t one of the ghosts from the fog either. So why he should seek vengeance against Liz – a gal who isn’t even from around these parts and therefore not part of the curse plaguing Antonio Bay - is even more perplexing and frankly, never explained away. Silly, inconsistent and misguided? Yes, but carried off with such purpose by Carpenter that it really doesn’t matter. It works.
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 threatening knock at the door, Mrs. Kobritz nevertheless opens it, unleashing the fog. It quickly claims her for its own. But Andy manages to escape out a back window, thanks to Nick and Liz’s quick thinking. The trio is pursued up the road by the fog, taking refuge in the church along with Kathy and Father Malone who confronts the ghost of Blake - the pirate king 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. However, as Father Ted prepares to lock up the church Blake returns, this time to kill him.
The Fog is a fairly solid movie. But it must be taken without prejudice and/or comparisons made to Carpenter’s other masterworks from this fertile creative period, and in some cases, it needs to be excused and even accepted for and on its own narrative flaws. Evidently, some critics were not willing to do this. After a disastrous preview, Carpenter went back to the drawing board, re-shot and reediting his footage with some more obvious scares thrown in to satisfying the audiences’ blood-lust: the result, an often disturbing and thoroughly engrossing minor masterpiece – quite successful at telling its tale plainly and without much fanfare; also, without succumbing to the urge to go all the way into ‘gross out’ slasher territory for its fifty-cent shock value. Does The Fog work? Superficially speaking – yes. Is it perfect? No. Is it a horror movie? I would argue against it. Cheap thrills and blood and guts are never Carpenter’s intent. What The Fog remains is an expertly crafted ghost story. One can choose to poo-poo the logistics of the exercise, but the net result is exactly what Carpenter and Hill set out to create – a spook yarn with a few good chills factored in along the way.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray is arguably the best incarnation of The Fog to reach home video. Let’s set aside MGM’s perversely second rate DVD – reissued several times with different packaging. Let’s also put to bed the old Optimum Blu-ray from five years ago. That disc’s contrast levels were severely bumped up. I remember thinking as I watched it that I could see far too much – if that’s possible – Dean Cundey’s cinematography looking as though it were lensed under extremely high key lighting conditions. Those who have reviewed The Fog’s history will remember it was shot ‘quick and dirty’ on a modest budget for just under a million dollars. Optimum’s release brightened everything up, diffusing much of the mood. Remember, Carpenter loves the dark – or rather, loves to make us cringe at the myriad of possibilities as to what might be lurking in the murky blackness beyond. Shout!’s Blu-ray toggles back the contrast back to acceptable levels. On occasion the darkness gets in the way of being able to see even basic features in hair and clothing. But according to DP Dean Cundey – who supervised this remastering effort – this is exactly in keeping with Carpenter’s original intent.
Colors are nicely rendered and there is no detection of edge enhancement or other digital anomalies. Occasionally, the image is softly focused. We also have some sequences where grain appears unnaturally too thick, with black levels intermittently crushing. However, on the whole this is a much more faithful rendering of the original theatrical presentation. The audio is offered in both original mono and a newly re-purposed 5.1 DTS, the latter favoring Carpenter’s synthesizer underscoring. It should be pointed out that like Halloween, The Fog’s chills would be nothing at all without Carpenter’s bone-chilling and relentless music cues. Most reviews overlook the score, but actually it makes Carpenter’s movies work on a whole other level.
Extras are another reason to celebrate. In addition to the original Carpenter/Debra Hill commentary from a few years ago (Hill died of cancer in 2005), we also get another new commentary from Tom Atkins and Adrienne Barbeau, plus a new interview with Jamie Lee Curtis, who rarely has chosen to partake in such retrospective nostalgia. Shout! has also licensed all of the featurettes that came with MGM’s DVD release, as well as ‘Horror’s Hallowed Ground’ featuring Sean Clark revisiting the various locations where the movie was made, plus outtakes, storyboards and trailers. In keeping with Shout!’s usual stellar commitment to preserving original artwork this Blu-ray slipcase is reversible; the new artwork and the original poster art interchangeable. Bottom line: this is the version of The Fog you want and it comes very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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