When people think of John Carpenter, they think of Halloween
Escape From New York, and The
Thing, or maybe They Live and Big Trouble in Little China;
but they don't often think about The Fog, which is really too bad. The
Fog isn't a masterpiece, but it's a creepy little relic.
Released in 1980, The Fog was Carpenter's first movie after the success
of Halloween. Audiences weren't impressed. Interesting, because when
you watch them side by side, The Fog offers up better scares, better
atmosphere, better jokes and a better story than Halloween.
The female cast is lead by some John Carpenter regulars -- Adrienne Barbeau
(Escape from New York), Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis (both from
Halloween) -- plus Jamie Lee Curtis' mom, Janet Leigh (who else can claim
to have been both in Psycho and in the giant-bunny-rabbits-on-a-rampage
movie Night of the Lepus?). Hal Holbrook is Father Malone, by far the
most interesting inhabitant of Antonio Bay, and the one who lends the movie
some essential gravity and pathos.
The Fog is part slasher flick, part ghost story, with a coastal gothic
back-story that, when you think about it, really is pretty disturbing. But all
you need to know right now is that there is a fog rolling up on Antonio Bay,
and it's not going to be a peaceful night.
With its sleepy coastal setting and town of hidden sins, The Fog is
on Stephen King territory. In one of his story collections, King has a story
in which creatures, rather than dead things, come out of the fog, and the characters
wind up holed up in a hardware store or something. I'm not sure if one was influenced
by the other, or if both King and Carpenter took inspiration from the old horror
masters. You can definitely see Carpenter's love of Tales From the Crypt
comic books in The Fog. Also, one of the characters is named after a
horror writer (Machen), the coroner is listed as Dr. Phibes, and there is a
reference to Bodega Bay, where The Birds took place.
There's a quality to certain older horror movies that can make them inherently
creepier than recent ones, like finding an old dusty book in your grandparent's
attic or in the darkened corner of an antique store. The film quality isn't
very sharp. The cast members are vaguely familiar, though you'd be hard-pressed
to name more than one of them. The special effects aren't eye-popping. But stillÖ.
It's the type of thing you'd stumble upon, late one night while flipping though
channels. It's already partway through the movie, and maybe you've never even
heard the title before, but you happen upon it during some unpleasant sceneÖ.
Your finger leaves the remote button, and next thing you know, even the late-night
commercials seem vaguely ominous, and you start to think that maybe it's not
such a good idea to be sitting alone on your couch in the dark at three o'clock
in the morning.
Due to some of the acting and dialog, it's hard to take The Fog seriously
all the time, but even the occasional whiffs of finely-aged 80s cheese took
me back to a time when I was just discovering horror movies. The character are
nondescript, occasionally ridiculous, and, except for Father Malone, lack even
a hint of emotional depth. Jamie Lee Curtis adds nothing to the movie,
but the way her hitchhiker character just sort of ends up in bed with a townie
and then hangs out in Antonio Bay for the ensuing mayhemÖ that's kind of funny.
Radio station owner Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) isn't quite as cocktail
lounge cool as she thinks she is, and the scenes where she gets really emotional
and starts ranting on the airwaves are kind of grating (not to mention the goofy
fog play-by-play she gives toward the end of the movie), but still, there's
something about her silk-and-cigarettes DJing voice. Guess that's why the animated
Batman folks cast her as Catwoman.
The fog isn't a monster, but it is a villainous presence in the movieÖ something
a lot more unique than the usual horror flick. And then there are the denizens
of the fog. Blake and his men, clad in black, are as relentless and almost as
iconic as the Nazgul, enough to make you wonder if Peter Jackson took a little
a bit of inspiration from The Fog for his Fellowship Ringwraiths.
And somehow it's simultaneously funny and scary that they are polite enough
to knock on your door before they tear you to shreds.
Carpenter is in fine form here, with plenty of 'don't open the door' scares,
'can't get the car into gear' scares, 'they're right behind you' scares, and
ó my favorite ó the 'they're just out of frame' scares. This stuff has since
become clichÈ, but when it works, it works. (SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH)
One absolutely brilliant one is when Jamie Lee Curtis is on the boat. It's Carpenter's
'There's something in the cabinet beside you! Just kidding, only some shifting
toolsÖ but there really is something in the other cabinet behind you!' In the
'Well, you asked for it' department, the fog disappears, everything is right
with the world, but Father Malone has to go and say, 'Why only five, Blake?
Why not six?'
Like a lot of other 'Special Edition' DVDs, this one's not all that special,
but it is nice to have some extras and background flotsam. The commentary track
by John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill is mildly mildly informative, but
those who have little patience for so-so commentary tracks can just skip to
the new documentary, 'Tales From the Mist', which distills nearly everything
of interest in the commentary track into a more easily digestible format, putting
The Fog in context, and giving you the breakdown on how the filmmakers
decided that the first cut of the film (according to Carpenter) 'just sucked',
and then went back to add in a crap-load of effects shots, gore, and spooky
'Tales From the Mist' is the only essential viewing material. The original
1980 doc 'Fear on Film' looks like it was cobbled together from a public access
television show. About three of the included 'outtakes' are amusing. There's
also the requisite photo gallery, and a short sequence that matches up a story-boarded
scene with the finished film. The trailers are old-school enough to be of interest
as artifacts, and are worth a quick look, so you can hear the movie announcer
intone, 'What in the living hell is out there?!' The full theatrical trailer
spoils one of the best scares in the movie. And from several of the trailers,
it's clear that the movie was a bit overhyped as 'a study in unrelenting terror!'
Oh, yeah, and if you fiddle with the directional buttons on the 'Special Features'
screen, you'll find a pair of glowing eyes at the top left of screen. Hit enter,
and you'll get a short compilation of raw FX footage.
Unless you need it to complete your Carpenter collection, I wouldn't rush to
get the DVD, but if you've never seen The Fog, it's a great rental for
a damp cool night. Just remember, when something mysterious comes knocking at
your door, ignore it. It might be Blake and his murderous Fog Gang. Or worse,
a Jehovah's Witness.
The Movie Itself: 7 out of 10
The DVD Features: 6 out of 10