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The Fog Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 1, 2005

    The Fog Review

    The movie 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 John Carpenter chose to preface his film with this fantastical question. Certainly, aged ten when, with the aid of a best friend's mother working for our local fleapit, 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, cold 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, the sights and sounds of these accursed watery wraiths keeping awake for many a night afterwards. 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. It brings back a sort of cosy style of horror, the kind to snuggle up to by the fireside. The quaint old ghostly yarn. 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 a treat.

    “11.55. Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before twelve ... just to keep us warm.”

    Old barnacled Mr.Machen (a jowly-chopped John Houseman) tells the local kids a spooky story by the flickering light of the campfire. 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 from the start. The picturesque coastal hamlet of Antonio Bay (a lot of which was actually filmed in and around California's Bodega Bay - where Hitchcock made 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 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. You can still feel the chill in the air, after Mr. Machen has finished his tale and balefully regards his 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 plays out over a languid series of inexplicable and strange events rocking the town at the midnight hour. Nothing overtly terrifying, or even 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.

    “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 hitchhiker called Elizabeth who claims that “bad things just seem to happen me.” Considering that she is played by none other than Halloween's 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 pickup 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 fogbank that blew in out of nowhere.

    “Sandy, you're the only person who can make yes, ma'am sound like screw you.”

    “Yes, ma'am.”

    Meanwhile, the town's civic dignitaries are gearing up the big celebration that's going to be held that night. Among them, the ultimate scream-queen Janet Leigh (Psycho's very own Marion Crane and Jamie Lee's real-life mother, the pair preparing for family-size screamathon) 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 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 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. The film's sentinel, Stevie also becomes its voice of reassurance, then warning, then all-out sheer panic when the ghoulish mariners come calling.

    “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 lesser performance, he would create an icon in Snake Plissken for his Escape From New York and then reach the pinnacle of his achievements far too early with The Thing (see separate review). The Fog, in many ways, was considered 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 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 we are going to be denied a pulse-pounding last stand scenario. To his credit though, Carpenter does supply a pretty neat double-jeopardy climax, with the ghouls also attacking Stevie up in the lighthouse. And, 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 to tepid returns and was soon dissipated by a critical indifference. Home video, however, secured it a rather select 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 it inevitably tumbles during the second half), Carpenter's movie is no less rewarding for attempting the former and giving up the ghost (pun intended) for the latter. The director has a keen filmic eye and a natural flair for making do. 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 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 afterward, its oddly pervasive mood refusing to ebb away. 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. 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, it is a heart-stopping moment of pure dread. The ghostly schooner heaving alongside, barely discernable amid the almost-physical tendrils of the fog, is an image hauled from the depths of maritime mystery. Such a tease, then, that Carpenter only allows us the 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. The Elizabeth Dane is a spectral delight, but, no sooner have we gaped in awe as it slides past, than it is gone. Lost in the mist. A vision, or a dream. Poe's quotation at the start suddenly begins to make sense.

    “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 an age-old tale of a ghostly doubloon is recounted. Tales within tales. Poe, again. The sinister piece of driftwood that Stevie's small boy finds on the beach comes to life as it sits on top of her radio-jingle-tapes in the lighthouse, and a superbly macabre voice from the past is dredged up to unnerve the lonely deejay. 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 on the airwaves. Carpenter has said many times that he was trying to evoke the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft. He's way off the mark, I'm afraid. 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.

    “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 the naming of his cast. Nick Castle was the name of the guy filling Michael Myers' boiler suit in Halloween. The late great Darwin Joston (Napoleon Wilson from Assault) plays a coroner called Dr. Phibes. 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 and a fellow filmmaker, with Alien and the similarly located Dead And Buried to his name. 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.

    “Why not six, Blake? Why not me?”

    The fx in The Fog are done on a shoestring, but they are still creepily effective. The apparitions are never shown in any detail - which is perhaps wise, given that the one worm and pus-riddled close-up 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. 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 pickup truck 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. The fog, itself, is a dated visual effect but, the hell with 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 standing still to watch it for a second too long as it begins to curl around them. And the hands reaching out from it as the mariners smash through the church windows, or pluck the unwary into their vile clutches. Yes, folks, the good moments 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.

    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. But I think it is wonderfully catchy, strange and melodic. 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.