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The Fog
Special Edition DVD
Reviewed by Jason Myers, © 2003

Format: Movie
By:   John Carpenter (writer/director)
Genre:   Horror
Released:   February 8, 1980 (original theatrical release)
Review Date:   February 19, 2003
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

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?'

DVDetails

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 moments.

'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.

Ratings:
The Movie Itself: 7 out of 10
The DVD Features: 6 out of 10


RevSF Film/DVD editor Jason Myers canít wait for Night of the Lepus to get the Special Edition DVD treatment. Heís also bracing for the barrage of mail from irate Jehovahís Witnesses. Which is fine, just please please donít knock on his door anymore.

 
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