John Carpenter’s uncommonly beautiful 1980 horror film, “The Fog,” remains an underrated showcase for the clever, ambitious filmmaker.
Carpenter, whose work is steeped in the knowledge and possibilities of cinema, has always been ahead of his time. Every film Carpenter has made post-“Halloween,” his still-untouchable 1978 masterpiece of suspense, was met with scrutiny and, for the most part, dismissed during initial release.
The few exceptions, “Starman” and “Christine,” were minor hits that are perhaps Carpenter’s most rarely acknowledged and celebrated today.
This may be a strange word to use, but the opening scene of “The Fog” is magical. There is something so precise, in tone and visual execution, of how Carpenter draws us into this world. We see John Houseman telling a campfire ghost story to a crowd of kids, establishing the lore of the ghost ship and the deadly specters to haunt the seaside town of Antonio Bay, Calif.
Note how the kids aren’t smirking at Houseman’s storytelling; they are spellbound, even fearful, of this tale, which commences the cursed day of infamy for their home. In these opening, pre-title moments, Carpenter announces that the new film “From the Director of ‘Halloween’” isn’t hip or necessarily courting a teen audience but teasing a more classical style of gothic horror.
By the time the title oozes onto the screen and the glowing menace can be spotted in the distance, “The Fog” confidently unfolds into a contemporary ghost story on the sins of our collective past.
The film arrived two years before “Poltergeist” but heeded the same warning. Be aware of those neglected, oppressed and forgotten. The montage of an empty town going haywire by an invisible threat establishes the theme of old ghosts terrorizing the comforts of the American dream.
As thematically and visually perfect as the introduction to “The Fog” is, what follows is a work that has clearly been compromised (though not fatally) by re-shoots. More so than the added scenes of violence that were added to the Carpenter-produced “Halloween II” (to keep up with the slasher movies trends that were at odds with Carpenter’s more suggestive, Hitchcockian approach), “The Fog” visibly has moments that are there because horror fans expect it, not because the film needs it.
Dean Cundy’s lensing remains dream-like, a blend of “Wuthering Heights” and Edgar Allen Poe illustrations, and Carpenter’s control of mood and atmosphere never wanes. Yet, when the bloodletting and impalements kick in, they sometimes feel jarringly out of place.
While the talented ensemble cast does fine work, there’s no center to this one. It needed a Donald Pleasance to carry it, or a figure as engaging as Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode to guide us. As is, Adrienne Barbeau is ostensibly the lead but the focus on her fades in and out; like her co-stars, her performance is solid, but the character is thin and needed greater definition.
I especially enjoyed the duo of Janet Leigh’s earnest reporter and underrated Carpenter contributor Nancy Loomis as her cynical sidekick, they add the most add color to minor background scenes.
If anything, Barbeau’s thinly crafted character is the most engaging, as her occupation of running a radio station in a gorgeous lighthouse is exotic and amusingly established. While Barbeau’s DJ Stevie Wayne may be a single mother who has to walk up and down a massive collection of stairs to work every day, she clearly relishes her role as the voice of her town as much as the townspeople visibly love listening in.
Barbeau is especially effective here, as Curtis, Tom Atkins and Hal Holbrook all threaten to take center but are constantly pushed to the sidelines.
Another problem that isn’t a deal-breaker but still a hindrance: the scenes set in daylight are tedious, a needlessly protracted pit-stop on the way to an unbearably tense finale.
The screenplay’s greatest problem isn’t logic (not a factor in a movie like this) but a greater sense of subtext and/or metaphor. By comparison, Frank Darabont’s take on Stephen King’s “The Mist” is superior, in its ability to give proper focus to its ensemble and, most importantly, create fear by suggesting the most dangerous element isn’t the supernatural presence but the unreliable humans in waiting.
Despite the post-production hassles of re-shoots and a few flaws here and there, “The Fog” is far from a miss. In fact, during its strongest passages, it feels like it’s this-close from masterpiece territory.
A massive achievement of Carpenter’s filmmaking is that the audience never feels like a tourist in Antonio Bay but a bystander with a lived-in perspective. Having this set in a 24-hour period is just right, as it not only establishes the window in which the evil travels as a plot device but creates a countdown for the mayhem, which pops up in unexpected places (like a wooden plaque that poses a threat in broad daylight).
The visual and thematic themes of Carpenter’s work thus far are all over “The Fog,” as the intrusion of evil into the naïve innocence of American life (“Halloween”) and the relentless trespassing of unstoppable forces (“Assault on Precinct 13”) are dealt with by grasping the mystery of the alien entity (“Dark Star”).
Aspects of “The Fog” feel like precursors to Carpenter’s “The Thing” (particularly with its ensemble struggling to comprehend the threat) and his ’95 films, “In the Mouth of Madness” and the remake of “Village of the Damned,” in which small town values and expectations are perverted and made into surreal spectacles.
In a way, Carpenter’s quirky comic fantasy, “Big Trouble in Little China,” also shares a connective tissue, as it portrayed working class men fumbling to get ahead of an evil entity with a history and physical power far greater than their own.
The characters Kurt Russell played in “The Thing” and “Big Trouble in Little China” could easily have been a part of the Antonio Bay town folk (it’s amusing to think that Jack Burton would likely have botched an escape attempt and been far less effective at battling the fog than DJ Steve Wayne…so begins my fan fiction).
Thanks to the ever-durable cult of Carpenter fans, the impressive degree that his work still holds up and fan-baiting Blu-ray distributors like Scream Factory (whose Special Edition of “The Fog” is definitive and has the best Curtis “Scream Queen” retrospective interview I’ve seen), every one of his films comes intensely into focus every few years.
At 40, it’s easy to grasp how the ghastly jolts and campfire chills (those ominous knocks in the middle of the night on unsuspecting Antonio Bay patrons still terrify me) weren’t enough for genre audiences.
After all, in 1980, “The Fog” had to distinguish itself in the midst of the surprise juggernaut “Friday the 13th,” Kubrick’s startling, love it/hate it sensation “The Shining,” and middle of the road slashers like the Curtis-led “Terror Train” and “Prom Night.”
While “The Fog” will always seem small in comparison to “The Thing” or “Escape From New York,” it’s among Carpenter’s scariest and most captivating efforts.
Today, the threat of an invisible menace that slowly makes its way across America, in a town of citizens shutting themselves in, isn’t science fiction or a campfire tale. “The Fog” ends on a note of both hopefulness and dread, which is just right, both for 1980 and right now.