Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980)
Its about time I started to showcase John Carpenter. He is one of my all-time favorite directors who knows how to handle horror films to a perfect pitch in my opinion. And considering how much the B-movies of the 1950s influenced him, its no wonder why he’s so good. Most of his films take the cliches of the classic horror films but gives them a fresh new look and direction. Halloween was one example of taking something simple as a serial killer and making it terrifying. Carpenter’s career can be best described as up and down. Some of his work has success while others not so. But thankfully, most of his films have gone on to become huge cult classics and appreciated for how innovative they were at the time and the quality overall.
His film The Fog falls somewhere in-between. It was a box-office success when you consider it was made for only a budget of $ 1 million but was plagued with production problems and negative reviews at the time. True, its no Halloween but its an entirely different movie that does have some similar methods but its really meant to be a good old fashioned ghost story for the modern times. John took influence from The Crawling Eye and a visit in Stonehenge where he saw a huge amount of fog drift in the distance. A thought then came to him. What if something was in the fog? And that is where this movie comes in.
It opens on a cameo by John Houseman who tells a spooky ghost story to a group of kids by a campfire. Its the perfect opening to a film like this. We are not meant to matter about characters and story but more of the atmosphere and eerie feeling. He tells a legend that the coastal town of Antonio Bay and its six founders were behind the sinking of a ship. Why you ask? Well, I best not spoil it because its really quite a twist. The gold from the ship was somehow taken (don’t ask how. its never explained) and was used to build the small town that is celebrating its 100th Anniversary.
However, its not long till a heavy fog starts roaming about and creates all sorts of chaos. Machines go out of control as mini-tremors jitter up the town. With in the fog are the spirits of the crew that perished in the shipwreck and seek revenge on the six that plummeted them to their death. How is this accomplished but by killing six random strangers in the place of the six that killed them. Now I should address that this is scary but it makes half sense.
I understand why the ghosts are going around and killing but wouldn’t it make more sense if they were after the “ancestors” instead of six random people. Even though this idea was used in the novelization, thinking about it now by having six people who are the ancestors remain in the town is a bit unrealistic but at least it would make the killings clearer. Thought I should address that one person is revealed to be an ancestor of the six and its a good twist for the end but there’s not much effect when your motive is to randomly murder than have some meaning to it. One on hand, I get why they would go after six (or five) random folks but why not pillage the whole town instead? Maybe there wasn’t enough budget to cover that idea. The idea of a killer with no motive worked better in Halloween because Mike Meyers was a killing machine and had the advantage to ax anybody off. Here, it feels like they could just randomly choose six people and not much damage could be done.
Aside from that, the rest of the movie holds up very well. Jamie Lee Curtis returns as a hitchhiker named Elizabeth who seeks romance in her next ride Nick Castle (Tom Atkins). The chemistry between the two is almost like Sherlock and Watson but a tad romanced. Though I should address they don’t talk like lovers or even have a hint of being together at the end which I think is a good call. It would have been too obvious and its more interesting seeing them trying to work out the reason behind the murders. Hal Holbrook joins in as Father Malone who just might have the answer to everything in a journal he discovers in the church walls. Not only is it the key to the fog but even we find out he might be part of the reason as well.
This movie is also notable for the first film debut of Adrienne Barbeau who plays a radio
jockey/lighthouse attendant that gives the weather and plays tunes for the ships at bay. Her storyline feels tagged on at times but I can’t help but appreciate a good performance from a great actress who would later go on to Swamp Thing, “The Crate” segment in Creepshow and Argo. She is neither too feisty or too soft. I want to say her character could have been easily dropped but I guess the town has to get its knowledge of the fog’s movements and its nice to see an old-fashioned radio station in a lighthouse. Overall, she’s one of the best things in this movie and one of the many reasons to see it.
As I said, this is not a movie that is driven by narrative but more by emotion and atmosphere. When the fog appears, its a creepy sight seeing a force of mother nature move about and swallow up buildings and ships into its path. In today’s age, it would be CGI but here its practical all the way and very carefully done. The ghosts themselves are scary too. On first watch, I was disappointed seeing we never get to see what these ghoulish creatures look like aside from a few glimpses of rotted green skin in one scene and limbs that look mummified. But after seeing it a few times, I think the idea of having these creatures remain in the dark is a good choice. It would ruined the mood having to see swashbuckling zombies and its effectively creepy having nothing but glowing eyes and the shadowy figure aboard. I do wish I had a chance to see what they would look like in the light seeing the effects were done by Rob Biottin and he even plays the leader of the ghosts too. He would later go to do amazing special effects work in other Carpenter films like The Thing, the fantasy creatures in Ridley Scott’s Legend and even the Martian inhabitants in Total Recall.
Interestingly enough, John Carpenter viewed a rough cut and felt the film wasn’t working or felt scary enough and thus decided to film extra scenes at the last minute to raise the stakes. At first, I thought it was just simple gore effects but as it turns out whole sequences were replaced with material that was far more intense. I won’t detail each alteration but I will say Carpenter made a good call as some of these scenes really helped add to the fear factor and some of them I personally consider memorable like the first kill with the three fisherman and a scene where a corpse tries to kill Elizabeth at the morgue. Its funny how such a small scene can really make an impact.
The Fog is what John Carpenter considers a minor horror classic. Its not the best but it does have some material that keeps it unique and interesting. The characters are good, the horror elements are really effective and the chilling atmosphere it produces are enough for me to give a high recommendation to. Its not a perfect movie but I feel I know what the intent was. It was to take a B-movie idea and give it a grander and frightening feel. Even John Carpenter filmed the whole thing in a wide lens so it wouldn’t have that low-budget feel. In many ways, The Fog succeeds but I can’t say its something iconic like The Thing or Big Trouble in Little China. Its really a ghost story of a different kind that is meant to be enjoyed not for its plot and characters but by how eerie and intense it can get.
Posted on October 8, 2014, in Horror-Wood 2014 and tagged Adrienne Barbeau, Ghost story, Hal Holbrook, Halloween, Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Carpenter, The Crawling Eye, The Fog, The Thing, Tom Atkins. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.