The Fog - A Closer Look
33 years old and still a chiller...
John Carpenter's 1980 ghostly yarn of barnacled mariners’ revenge, The Fog, opens with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe:
“Is all that we see or seem,
But a dream within a dream?”
I've often wondered why he chose to preface his film with this fantastical question, suggested by his producer and former partner, Debra Hill, as a fitting mood-creator. Certainly, aged ten when, with the aid of a best friend's mother working for our local fleapit, The Phoenix, I was able to see The Fog up on the big screen (Cert. AA - remember those days, anyone?) it meant nothing at all to me.
What did matter, though, was an atmosphere of pure menace, coldly lyrical imagery and the spookiest damn ghosts that I'd ever seen. Yep, I shouldn't have been in there. But, The Fog, at that time, scared me more than any of the multitude of forbidden horrors I'd snuck in to see before then, the sights and sounds of these accursed watery wraiths keeping me awake for many a night afterwards, dreading seaweed-draped shuffling outside the bedroom and the slow, methodical pounding of hooks on the door. And the beauty of it was that the story was so simple. Nice people. Bad ghosts. It made perfect sense back then. I could handle that in the cute, non-traumatic way that many horror fans first discover the thrills of being hooked by something otherworldly. Nowadays, The Fog, a definite misfire on many levels, remains an eerie favourite of mine. It brings back a sort of cosy style of horror, the kind to snuggle up to by the fireside. The quaint old ghostly tale similar, in some ways, to the type of atmospheric chiller that Universal and RKO made their names with. And, looking back on those halcyon days when video-cassettes were making their first fledgling appearance, it is a terrific reminder of when the words “John Carpenter's”, looming out of a black screen before a film's title, actually meant that you were in for something of a treat.
Eleven-fifty-five. Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before twelve ... just to keep us warm.
Old bilge-pumping Mr. Machen (a jowly-chopped John Houseman essaying someone who could well be Quint's old man) tells the local kids a spooky story by the flickering light of the camp-fire. It is the story of the film itself, a brilliantly injected piece of scene- and narrative-setting that very slyly bypasses the expositional tag that would have fumbled any other filmmaker of the time, and expertly weaves the ghostly mood of the movie around us right from the start. The picturesque coastal hamlet of Antonio Bay (the fabulously beautiful Point Reynes for the most part, with even some material filmed in and around California's Bodega Bay, as a direct homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds) is on the eve of its centenary, but it hides a ghastly secret. A conspiratorial circle of the town's elders once lured a colony of water-borne lepers to their shipwrecked doom off the coast, robbing their gold to bring the town fortune. And now, as creepy Mr. Machen informs us, the ghostly waterlogged crew of the ill-fated Elizabeth Dane are sure to rise from their salty graves to take their vengeance upon those that betrayed them, their dreadful mission aided by the very fog that helped send them below the waves in the first place. It is a dazzling hook, to be sure. You can still feel the chill in the air, after Mr. Machen has finished his tale and balefully regards his subdued audience. To be honest, the film could have ended right there and still delivered enough of a spine-tingle to send you home happily freaked. But Carpenter plays another neat trick on us when the title sequence spins out over an effectively languid series of inexplicable and strange events that rock the town at the midnight hour.
Nothing overtly terrifying, or even inherently supernatural. But incidents that seem to mark the town out for worse to come. An ominous warning that lures us into dangerous waters, much as the poor lepers were, one hundred years before.Our celebration tonight is a travesty. We're honouring murderers.When Hal Holbrook's jaded, alcoholic priest, Father Malone, discovers the shocking truth behind the town's legacy and prosperity in his ancestor's journal, chronicling the dark treachery perpetrated upon the leper leader, Blake, and his ravaged people - after a convenient slab of masonry tumbles mysteriously from the church wall - he seems to resign himself to his fate ... with the aid of the Biblical bottle. Local boy, Nick Castle (John Carpenter's regular Nick Nolte stand-in, Tom Atkins) picks up an unlucky hitch-hiker called Elizabeth who claims of her misfortunes that “bad things just seem to happen me.” Considering that she is played by none other than Halloween's immortal scream-queen Jamie Lee Curtis, we can certainly assume that she will, indeed, be bad luck for poor Nicky-boy.
And sure enough, if a strange visitor in the middle of the night and a window in his pick-up smashed by a phantom vandal aren't enough, he's soon going to be all at sea when his fishing buddies go missing out in a fog-bank that blew in out of nowhere.“Sandy, you're the only person who can make ‘yes, ma'am’ sound like screw you.”
Meanwhile, the town's civic dignitaries are gearing up the big celebration that is going to be held that night. Among them, the ultimate scream-queen to whom even Jamie Lee must bow down, Janet Leigh (Psycho's very own Marion Crane and Jamie Lee's real-life mother, the pair preparing for a family-size scream-athon, it seems) and her sarcastic assistant, Sandy, played by another of Halloween's knife-fodder teens, Nancy Loomis. But, The Fog is justly remembered primarily for one person in particular. Adrienne Barbeau, at her absolute sexiest, is radio-jock Stevie Wayne, perched in her lofty spire atop the most scenic landmark in Antonio Bay.
That's right, the old lighthouse. Now, you remember. Well, it may be the coolest place to work, with its fantastic oceanic views and it's guaranteed to provide a good signal for its broadcasts - but it's the last place you want to be when the fog comes rolling in. This fog. As the film's sentinel, Stevie also becomes its voice of reassurance, then warning, then all-out sheer panic when the ghoulish mariners come calling. Adrienne Barbeau gives possibly her best performance as the desperate DJ, and it is Stevie's presence and plight that binds the story together.Now what kind of fog moves against the wind?This was the time when, plot-holes and all, John Carpenter ruled the cinema. His indie-hits were proving to be quite an estimable canon of work. Assault On Precinct 13's updated Rio Bravo was an aggressive tour de force, Halloween broke records and created the stalk and slash genre that keeps stabbing its way back into vogue and, soon after The Fog's slightly lesser performance, he would create a futuristic action icon in Snake Plissken for his Escape From New York and then reach the pinnacle of his achievements far too early with The Thing. The Fog, in many ways, was considered a bit of a stumble for the director even back then.
And it is easy to see why, with the hindsight not afforded a gob-smacked, horror-weaned ten-year old boy. The plotting is one-note, the characters threadbare and, besides Stevie, we couldn't really care about any of them. The major gaff, though, is in giving away the number of victims that the cursed crew are going to slay. This works against the excitement and suspense of the film when you consider that, during the final onslaught on the barricaded church, it only takes one more victim to satisfy Blake ... and, thus, it seems likely that we are going to be denied the pulse-pounding last stand scenario that Carpenter evidently wants to shred our nerves with.
To his credit though, he does supply a pretty neat double-jeopardy climax, with the ghouls also attacking Stevie, stranded up in the lighthouse at the same time as others of the motley crew besiege another bunch penned-up in the church. Mind you, if she's going to be the last victim, then we do care.Get inside and lock your doors. Close your windows. There's something in the fog.
When The Fog rolled in, it was initially greeted to some small success - even rising to claim the number one slot in the movie chart according to Variety - but after a week of unexpected adulation, the mist genuinely smothered it and the film then dissipated under a waft a critical indifference. As with The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China, it was home video, however, that secured it a rather select, though staunch cult following. Perhaps, now, it is time to redress the balance. Sitting somewhat precariously on the fence between classic ghost story (which it so wants to be) and straight-ahead horror flick (into which category it inevitably tumbles during the second half), Carpenter's movie is no less rewarding for attempting the former and then giving up the ghost (pun intended) for the latter. The director has a keen filmic eye, knowing how to tell a story visually, and a natural flair for making do on a shoe-string.
The budget constraints on his films pre-The Thing were all-too visible, the impression that his shooting schedule and funding were running out evident with his marvellous, but undeniably rushed finales. The Fog is no exception. It is literally over before you know it, and the hard-faced and cynical amongst us are apt to think is that it? But, damn, if it doesn't linger in the mind for a long time afterwards, its oddly pervasive mood refusing to ebb away with the coming of daylight. The notorious Sea Grass sequence, when Nick's trio of drunken fishermen-friends become enveloped in the glowing fog is rightly celebrated. Carpenter fashions a true feeling of the supernatural here, the film billowing in the mist of maritime legend. A small boat out on the vast tracts of the sea, facing something unspeakable and otherworldly. Buck Flower (another Carpenter regular) is wonderful as a throaty yokel, and when he whispers, “Who is that?” as the barely glimpsed apparitions board their flimsy vessel and loiter on the misty bow. It is a heart-stopping moment of pure dread. The ghostly schooner heaving alongside, barely discernible amid the almost-physical tendrils of the ensnaring fog, is an image hauled from the depths of seafaring mystery. Such a tease, then, that Carpenter only allows us a sight of it for the most fleeting of instances. Yet, that is exactly how ghost stories work best. They leave impressions in the mind and a feeling in the gut, their mysteries left hanging and unexplored by tantalising corner-of-the-eye illusions. The Elizabeth Dane is a spectral delight, but, no sooner have we gaped in awe as it slides past us, than it is gone. Lost in the mist. A vision, or a dream. Suddenly, Poe's quotation at the start begins to make sense, doesn't it?She's crazy. There's no fog bank out there. Hey ...there's a fog bank out there ...This classical, yet fantastical approach is further stirred around a bit with the terrific finding of the supposedly deserted Sea Grass a little later on. Atkins and Curtis sit down below, evoking a great Marie Celeste atmosphere as the age-old tale of a ghostly doubloon is recounted by Nick. Tales within tales. Poe, again. The screenplay from Carpenter and Hill is a like a Russian Doll, another myth lurking just below the first one ... “one more story before bedtime”. The sinister piece of driftwood that Stevie's small boy, Andy (Ty Mitchell), finds on the beach comes to life as it sits on top of her stack of radio-jingle-tapes in the lighthouse, and a superbly macabre voice from the past is dredged up to unnerve the lonely deejay out on the edge of the world. This moment, more than any other, is possessed of something that is emphatically creepy. There is no explanation, no solution. The magical quality of the scene is in its pure ambiguity. Just a voice reaching out across time, mimicking, perhaps, Stevie's own voice as it reaches out across the sea upon the airwaves. Carpenter has said many times that he was trying to evoke the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft or M.R. James.
Although he would eventually come knocking at the weird New England writer's amorphous door, good and proper, with The Thing and, especially, In The Mouth Of Madness, he' doesn’t find his way here, I'm afraid with frightful flavours of the classic horror wordsmiths ultimately swamped with spices of the slasher pic that he, himself, made his own elaborate speciality. The shapeless monstrosities “from beyond” hold no sway over these haunted shores, as his film steers an ultimately more erratic course once the shivery shipmates come ashore and become leprous landlubbers with flesh-cleaving on their collective agenda. And the subtle unease of James is swiftly jettisoned in favour of slashing hooks and plunging daggers. Thematically, though, he is traversing the right sort of terrain.“Look across the water into the darkness. Look for the fog.”
Despite the pressure he was under, Carpenter still found the confidence to infuse his film with a ton of knowing self-reference and movie in-jokes. The greatest gag of all, of course, was casting himself as Father Malone's over-worked and underpaid helper. No, I'm only kidding. It was in the naming of his cast. Nick Castle was the name of Carpenter's high school buddy, the guy filling Michael Myers' boiler suit in Halloween, and later director of The Last Starfighter. The late great Darwin Joston (Napoleon Wilson from Assault) plays a coroner called Dr. Phibes, tipping the medically unorthodox wink to a certain Vincent Price. And the other Carpenter regular in Charles Cyphers, playing the doomed weatherman in love with Stevie (just voices over the airwaves, again) is called Dan O'Bannon, close friend of Carpenter's since their Dark Star days, and a fellow filmmaker and screenwriter, with Alien, Return of the Living Dead, and the similarly located Dead & Buried to his name. Carpenter’s own name in the film is even Bennet Tramer – a familiar Haddonfield beau whom Laurie Strode secretly had the hots for, and subsequently got immolated in a case of mistaken Myers identity in Halloween II. Oh yeah, and the lousy band playing on the radio - the Coups De Villes - that's John Carpenter's own band, who also provided the theme song for Big Trouble In Little China and, incidentally, features one Nick Castle, as well.Why not six, Blake? Why not me?The FX in The Fog are done on the cheap, but they are still creepily effective and brilliantly inventive. The apparitions are never shown in any detail - which is perhaps wise, given that the one worm and pus-riddled close-up that we do see is an amateurish concoction from Rob (The Thing) Bottin's early days. Bottin plays the part of the revengeful Blake and he, at least, succeeds in sending the shivers up and down the spine, with his demonic glowing red eyes, seaweed bedraggled form and clanking sword. All the wraiths, when viewed looming through their shroud of fog, are marvellously depicted, however. Truly nightmarish. It was the silhouettes of them brandishing their horrible weaponry - spiked eye-gougers, scythes and hooks - that gripped me as a child. And, to be honest, they still do. As they advance upon the stricken pick-up truck (actually the same vehicle that Michael Myers commandeered after his escape from Smith’s Grove Sanatorium) after little Andy's rescue from Mrs. Kobritz's house and, best of all, the wicked curved blade smacking down on the roof of the lighthouse as Stevie clatters out of reach provide some desperately unsettling moments of high tension. This type of macabre imagery would also be utilised in O'Bannon's bleakly nasty EC Comics fuelled Dead & Buried. The fog, itself, is a dated visual effect but, the hell with the lack of technology, it still looks great as it folds over the landscape or peels across the surface of the sea. The glow is captivating - for once you can imagine a would-be victim actually doing that daft thing of standing still to watch it for a second too long as it begins to curl around them, trapping them within its clammy, sepulchral embrace. The way it billows forth over the road behind Dan the Weatherman as he drives unwittingly towards his final night at work, almost like a cloud-fist that has just missed grabbing him. And then there's the hands reaching out from it as the mariners smash through the church windows, or pluck the unwary from their doorways and into their vile clutches - yes, folks, the good moments, when they come, are very good, indeed. Certainly enough to put the lame bits in the shade. There is style aplenty in The Fog, even though the once-mighty John Carpenter appears to lose direction after such a terrific set-up and flip-flop like a storm-tossed schooner between the supernatural and the generic bodycount flick .
By the director's own admission, The Fog, at one stage looked like being a complete disaster. The first cut of the film was bereft of pace, shocks and point. The music refused to work and the story just didn't add up. After a brief sojourn in Tahiti with his then-wife, Adrienne Barbeau (now that's what I call R & R, folks!) he came back to his sets, and his editing and mixing suites in LA and, with only a month left before the production wrapped, he and the ever-dutiful Tommy Wallace re-shot, re-cut and wrestled his footage into a slicker, nastier and more rounded condition, perfected the synth score with early collaborator Dan Wyman (who also worked on the scores for Assault and Halloween), and got his film released on time. Despite being a definite step-down from Halloween - the film is still clumsy, lopsided and somewhat character-less even for a confirmed ensemble-piece - it managed to give audiences a terrifically atmospheric coastal chill and such a memorably misty menace that the maverick ghost story helped to cement John Carpenter's name as a pioneer of cultish independent fright-flicks. Ineptly remade in 2005, the original, and far superior The Fog now shows its considerable strengths upon re-watching. It is a small tale about a small town. As such, its centennial horror show somehow feels more intimate, and more traumatic because of it. The personal nature of the malevolence is profound, and this “alien force invading the cosy and the familiar” would reinforce one of Carpenter's most established, ongoing themes.
Along with Dark Star, Assault, Halloween, The Thing, Christine, Prince Of Darkness and the more recent The Ward, The Fog is a closed, insular film. Together, this body of work represents America's clad-in-iron fear of outsiders and the subversive damage that they can do once they breach the country's defences and get amongst its people. Thus, it is a bigger picture wrapped surreptitiously around a smaller picture - tales within tales yet again. Like Stephen King, far more so than Poe or Lovecraft or James, Carpenter deconstructs the family and the home, the reassuring, the commonplace and the blasé rent asunder beneath some maligned infiltration. He would voyage rather more determinedly into Lovecraftian waters with the superb and sadly overlooked In The Mouth of Madness, but the theme of a haunted fishing hamlet, cursed by something from the depths, is certainly reminiscent of The Haunted Palace.
Shock/exploitation filmmakers like Lucio Fulci love to claim that there are messages beyond the mayhem and the mutilation in their movies, but John Carpenter hides his more serious (and genuine) observations much more cleverly and, in just as insidious a manner as his various bogeymen go about their business, plants his themes into our subconscious from the outside in. On the surface, low-budget thrillers, but with closer scrutiny, pertinent glimpses into the prevailing, though often unspoken, mores of the times in which they were made.“Are you going to give the benediction tonight, father?”
“Antonio bay has a curse on it.”
“Do we take that as a ‘no’?”In only a scant couple of years since her ground-breaking turn in Halloween, we can see Curtis move from teenage naivety to ironic sass with her hitch-hiker, Elizabeth. But cast adrift with no backstory, other than that coolly mysterious claim that she is bad luck - a slight reference to her previous babysitting terrors - she is then given virtually nothing extra to do other than keep up with Atkins on his whirlwind search-and-rescue missions around Antonio Bay, and to issue the odd scream when things jump out at her. With other genre-producers clamouring to have her stalked and terrorised in their own pictures (Prom Night and Terror Train were just around the corner), she would then, rather ironically, have to return to the gangly innocence of Laurie Strode for Halloween II not long after The Fog, though the reverse transition to playing a seventeen year old again would not be at all convincing. Sadly, in The Fog, she seems both tacked-on and then underused. Even Tom Atkins would have to wait until Halloween III: Season Of The Witch before he got a part that he could actually have some fun with. That said, he does manage to bed his hitcher shortly after picking her up – surely a precursor to his amazingly womanising ways in Halloween III! The iconic Janet Leigh fails to elicit sympathy as the tragic festival organiser, Kathy Williams, her apparent ease at getting over the shock over her husband's nasty demise a severely unrealistic trait. And Nancy Loomis, as her irritating assistant Sandy, once again, is relegated to little more than nasal-voiced whining and omnipresent sarcasm - by now she must have been wondering when her Academy Award for Most Depressing Actress was going to be handed to her. Hal Holbrook fares a little better, assuming a more melancholic riff on Patrick Troughton's lapsed priest-with-a-grim-secret in The Omen. But even he is mostly consigned to spouting reams of exposition and quoting from that accursed journal.
Yet, these poorly written characters don't harm the film half as much as they ought to. Carpenter wants to establish mood and suspense and, during this period, there was no-one else who could touch him as far as this sort of thing went.
Look at how grave Father Malone always looks. Frequently sheathed with shadows, his conscience and guilt weigh heavily upon the film. His self-condemning acceptance of the mariners’ wrath a delightfully melancholic touch that addresses the Halloween coda of Fate. They couldn’t move Holbrook from the one location of the church because they couldn’t afford to, so he and the church become one and the same – a symbol of corrupted devotion and bitter regret. Cleverly, the House of God becomes tainted, whilst Stevie Wayne, the film’s watchful saviour, literally seems to embody the Light. Big John is not creating another bogeyman either. Michael Myers was incontrovertibly and implacably evil. The Thing is just doing what it has to in order to survive. And these accursed seamen have been terribly wronged and are simply seeking retribution. Unlike, say, with Mario Bava’s many revenge-fuelled grave-risers, these boys have got a genuine grievance and, weirdly, they are quite sympathetic in the long-run.Still bloody scary, though!The film is big on sudden shocks, adrenalised rushes that would have had audiences lurching and grabbing one another for swift reassurance. Carpenter orchestrates these well, even if the majority of them seem, nowadays anyway, a little obvious in their construction. The jolting appearance of Father Malone, for instance, is a great heart-stopper but it doesn't actually make any sense for a man of the cloth to be groping a visitor from out of the shadows like that. Slithering footsteps outside of doors and then soggy fists pounding on them to be let in have you imploring the fragile Mrs. Kobritz and the overly-confident weatherman not to open up to their nocturnal visitors. Once the bay is engulfed by the fog and the town is literally at its mercy, the pace accelerates to the mesmerising pulse of Carpenter's music, common sense now thankfully unnecessary, and simple, cathartic bedlam allowed to reign supreme. The final act is extremely bravura stuff. Lighthouse doors are wrenched off their hinges, roads are cut off by the encircling clouds of choking mist. And whilst grotesque hands grab victims by the hair through stained-glass windows, ironically punching light into the gloom of the church’s interior as they bring with them the ethereal glow of the fog, Barbeau fights for her life atop the lighthouse - the two conflicts becoming a twinned-siege, juxtaposed only by location.
It is, indeed, a finale that reaches fever-pitch, although Carpenter can't quite resist going a step too far with a poorly glued-on epilogue that feels juvenile and genre-contrived. I know it is still cool and all rather fun, but it also implies that Blake and his crew are a touch absent-minded. “Oh yeah ... we needed SIX deaths. Well ... d’uh! We’ll have to go back.” Must be all that maggoty saltwater in their pipes, I suppose.
Something that one lives with like an albatross round the neck. No, more like a millstone. A plumbing stone, by God! Damn them all!
At a time when Steven Spielberg (who dissected American suburbia from a slightly different, and altogether more optimistic perspective than Carpenter) was showing people looking up into cosmic beauty and wonder, enraptured by life-changing events epitomised by bright lights, in The Fog Carpenter was constantly depicting them facing a wall of impenetrable, almost living vapour, their queasy wonder ushering them towards life-endangering events. Both directors enjoyed bringing the fantastic into the lives of the everyman and seeing how he well fared. Spielberg offered answers and hope, whilst Carpenter never gave any secrets away, and usually quashed all sense of redemption or salvation. His cynical attitude, so totally birthed by a sense of rebellion and an innate distrust of authority, actually works well even within the parameters of a ghost story. Swap the Senate and the Nixon/Carter administration for Antonio Bay’s town elders and you have the seeds of “what goes around, comes around,” the very town festivities a misguided sham that will turn about and bite the innocents on the ass whilst the guilty hide away. Carpenter almost reveals a pathological cruelty towards small-town communities with the amount of grief that he puts them through. And yet this actually translates to an eventual victory of sorts ... a time of reluctant camaraderie and courage under fire. But he certainly revels in putting close-knit circles through the wringer, as he’d prove with the paranoia of The Thing.
A second Carpenterian outing for DOP Dean Cundey results in one of the most entrancing of American horror films, and just perhaps the most beautiful and breathtaking of all of the director’s projects. The fluid camerawork brings the locations and the sets to life and, in what would become an essential hallmark, incorporates you into the action as it glides and floats from your perspective. Despite all the horror that goes on there, he has provided the greatest scenic tour of Inverness, Northern California and the picturesque Port Reyes that the locals could ever wish for.One final thing, listen properly to the main theme that plays over the end titles.Some claim that it is a sub-par riff of Carpenter's own score for Halloween. No way. It is trademark Carpenter-synth-doodling to be sure - simplistic in its metronomic repetition, hypnotic in its chiming cadence, and it is very definitely modelled and structured, almost to the very beat, upon the Haddonfield Opera . But I think it is wonderfully catchy, strange and melodic. It lyrically captures the bracing sea air and the isolation of a coastal community. Listen a little closer - and with some sound-systems it may not come out too clearly - and you'll hear a continuous effect in there that is not unlike the sound you get from a shell pressed to your ear. Now, that's poetic. Get it? Poe-etic.
It can’t mask its shortcoming inside The Fog but Carpenter’s swansong to the nihilistic seventies gets better each time you see it. Simple, assured and downright spooky, this rose from the flotsam of a beached first cut and has since sailed on a brighter voyage of greater genre credibility and respect.
The Fog is a class act from someone who once owned the genre.
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