(1980) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill; Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook and Tom Atkins; Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Many of John Carpenter’s films seemed to be ahead of their time, gaining more acceptance years after their original release. The Fog is no exception, proving the old aphorism that hindsight is 20/20. His follow-up to Halloween was viewed as a bit of a disappointment at the time, but it has steadily acquired a loyal following over the years as an underrated gem. Carpenter built an impressive resume in the period that spanned roughly from the mid 70s until the late 80s, with a host of diverse and fascinating genre-bending movies. The Fog fits squarely into this fertile period, and compares favorably to his best works.
Carpenter sought out to make an old-fashioned ghost story, which remains at the heart of The Fog, despite revisions made out of necessity. Production for the $1.1 million-budgeted film (compared to roughly $300,000 for Halloween) was troubled. When they reviewed the original cut of the film, the filmmakers decided that what they had wasn’t frightening enough. In Carpenter’s words, he was “under a lot of pressure” to make a film that was scarier than Halloween, so the filmmakers scrambled to improve The Fog, just one month before it was slated for release in the theaters. Their efforts included re-editing the film, revising the music, and shooting new scenes to give it the “punch” that they felt it previously lacked. The general impression was that audiences had become more sophisticated, demanding more visceral, explicit thrills. As a result, some of the scenes with the biggest shocks were added later.
The Fog was set in the fictional coastal Californian town of Antonio Bay (actually Point Reyes, California). Co-writer/producer Debra Hill noted that the location was coincidentally the second foggiest place in America. The lighthouse was a real structure in Point Reyes, selected after an extensive search of lighthouses up and down the coast. Sets were created to stand in for the lighthouse interior, which also served as Antonio Bay’s radio station. * Carpenter decided to have the station play obscure jazz tracks, which was decidedly cheaper than trying to secure the rights for rock music. Oddly enough, this decision forged out of budgetary constraints also makes The Fog seem more timeless, as the inclusion of then-contemporary rock would have dated the film
* Fun fact: According to John Carpenter’s DVD commentary, the spiral steps in the lighthouse set were a recycled 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea prop.
The opening scene with John Houseman sitting around a beach campfire perfectly sets the mood, foreshadowing the events that are yet to come. He spins a tale about a fateful day 100 years ago, when a deliberately misplaced bonfire caused the Elizabeth Dane to crash against the rocks of the seashore, killing the ship’s occupants. Because of the deception, however, the founders brought a terrible curse upon themselves that would be exacted on their descendents. Houseman’s scene is short, but the veteran actor brings conviction to the story, endowing the rest of the film with an overwhelming sense of dread. Not bad for one day’s work.
Carpenter based the story on an actual historical incident that took place off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, although the ghosts-seeking-revenge elements were obviously embellishments. Carpenter incorporated many in-jokes into the script, using the names of people he previously worked with (Nick Castle, Dan O’Bannon and Tommy Wallace) as character names. The imagery of The Fog compliments the story perfectly, with cinematography by Dean Cundey. Cundey’s masterful use of lighting and utilization of the entire Panavision frame teases us about what lurks in the shadows and fog, revealing just enough to make us happy we can’t see any more. The fog itself takes on the properties of a character, as it oozes and envelops Antonio Bay – a harbinger of death for the townspeople. The image that sticks with me through the decades is the depiction of the ghostly sailors that dwell in the fog and their glowing red eyes.
Adrienne Barbeau (who was Carpenter’s wife at the time) plays Stevie Wayne, single mother and DJ for the lighthouse-based radio station. She provides a voice in the darkness for Antonio Bay’s residents, serving as an auditory analog to the lighthouse’s beacon. Barbeau does a nice job of skirting the line between tough and vulnerable. As she falls under the fog’s spell, it’s evident that she’s not going down without a fight. This sets up a memorable scene at the top of the lighthouse as she flees the fog ghosts.
Hal Holbrook arguably provides the film’s strongest performance as Father Malone. His knowledge of the town’s terrible secret weighs on his conscience as he observes, “We’re honoring murderers.” He cannot reconcile the fact that his ancestor was one of the men who conspired to engineer the deaths of the settlers from the Elizabeth Dane and recover the gold from their stricken ship. Holbrook was reportedly not a fan of the finished movie, but his performance as the tortured priest lends much-needed weight to the story, allowing us to overlook many of the inconsistencies.
While the performances are generally solid, and Carpenter’s solemn tone is pitch perfect, The Fog suffers from some lapses in logic. The vengeful ghosts seemingly attack at random, failing to discriminate between the descendents of the town’s founders and other people. The ghosts themselves shift back and forth between corporeal and non-corporeal beings, carrying solid metal hooks and swords, then vanishing into thin air. The peripheral characters do stupid things like walking out into the fog to be slaughtered, for no discernible reason other than it’s ordained in the script.
Faults aside, The Fog is a superior ghost story, best heard around a campfire at midnight when anything seems possible and the dark holds mysteries that can’t be unraveled by the intellect. It’s one of Carpenter’s best, preying on our collective fears about what dwells on the fringe of our perceptions. We fear the phantoms manufactured in our mind, and no amount of rational thought can dispel the notion that the phantoms are not real.