1980s, 3/4, Horror, John Carpenter, Review

The Fog (1980)

The Fog (1980) - IMDb

#11 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.

Made for about a million dollars, John Carpenter’s cinematic follow up to Halloween tries to find terror in fog, and you know what? It works remarkably well. The key was never to try to elicit horror from the fog itself, but to have the fog hide something we could never quite see. In some ways, it’s a throwback to an older kind of horror where the threat was never seen and only alluded to, allowing the audience’s imagination to pick up the slack. Carpenter obviously doesn’t really go that far, having reshot some footage to actively include more gore, but finding a way to make something almost mundane a source of terror is quiet well pulled off here.

In a very interesting way, The Fog‘s first two acts seem to have been inverted. What would have been the second act, the escalating sense of foreboding, is how the film begins, while nearly completely ignoring any traditional effort to establish character or setting. The first ten minutes are almost completely wordless, aside from a scene setting telling of a ghost story on the beach, and instead of giving us the Hollywood opening of a cheery seaside community with nothing to worry about, we get ominous foreboding at the witching hour as things in the small town of Antonio Bay. Between midnight and one, car alarms go off, clocks break, and a small fishing vessel a few miles off the coast encounters some mysterious figures as fog engulfs it, leaving all three crewmembers dead.

Amidst this is Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), the new owner of the local radio station, who has come to Antonio Bay with her ten-year-old son, Andy. There’s also Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), a hitchhiker who gets picked up by Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) with whom she decides to stick around. Janet Leigh’s Kathy Williams is organizing the hundred year anniversary of Antonio Bay along with her assistant Sandy (Nancy Loomis) with whom she visits Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) who has discovered a secret diary of his grandfather (also a priest, it seems, so these are Anglicans, I presume) that details the sordid history of the founding of Antonio Bay.

A hundred years before, four elders made a pact with the captain of a ship full of lepers to allow them to build a colony north of the town’s proposed site. They took the money but built a signal fire in a place where they knew the clipper ship bringing the lepers would run against rocks and sink, helped prodigiously by an unexpected fog. The curse of the town’s founding is now coming back to haunt the current denizens as the dead ride their ship through the fog to the town.

An interesting thing about how the film is built is how little interaction there is between the different groups of people until the end. Heck, Stevie doesn’t interact with anyone but her son face to face in the entire film. Everyone is off on their own, either dealing with their own business (like Mrs. Williams trying to organize and pull of the centenary celebration) or figuring out what’s going on from their small pocket of the town (like Stevie and, separately, Elizabeth and Nick). This speaks to the repeated scenarios that Carpenter has explored through his films of individuals in remote locations dealing with the presence of evil.

The idea of the quiet, tranquil seaside village of Antonio Bay being built on a foundation of murder is almost Lynchian in how is approaches the idea of Americana. This is a natural extension of the idea of the young being faced with the evils of the world untaught by their parents in Halloween, moving from evil being a natural force to evil being an extension of ill deeds in the past done even by those that bore us and created our homes from the wilderness. Those who did the ill deeds are long since dead, having hidden away the proof of their crimes in the walls of the town’s church, and yet the children, both young and old, must deal with it.

The movie essentially just becomes a monster movie for its final act, though. You could say the same about the ending of Halloween, but the earlier film’s singular main character aided it whereas the half-dozen characters we follow in The Fog prevent this film from retaining the same kind of focus. It just feels like a half-dozen last survivors in a slasher coming together in a single place to hold out until the end of the movie happens. The actual resolution involved Father Malone discovering the remaining gold paid by the captain of the clipper one hundred years ago, melted down and formed into a large cross, offering it up to the ghosts in the fog. What do ghosts need with gold? This resolution feels murky, especially after they go away and then come back to kill Father Malone anyway. It feels like an effort to find a thematic resolution to the film but needing a genre-thrill to end the story at the same time. These end up being contradictory goals the way they play out (I would guess that the final kill is a result of the reshoots), and I think the film’s ending just doesn’t really live up to the rest of the film.

There’s a lot to admire in this film. It’s not that the final act falls apart, or anything, but that it just feels more typical than the movie had been up to that point. Carpenter’s effort to save his film through reshoots seems to have, perhaps, diverted the focus away from where it should have been. I’d be curious to see the original cut of the film that seems to have been less gory, but that will most likely never come to light. This film is too well considered by Carpenter fans for that, even if the elements exist at all. Still, the film overall is a good horror film with something on its mind, fitting in well with Carpenter’s body of work and offering some decent genre thrills along the way.

Rating: 3/4

4 thoughts on “The Fog (1980)”

  1. I think other movies/media have done the ‘spooky stuff in the fog’ better, sadly. I mean…ghost pirates? Really? This is basically a pulp 50’s horror comic on the big screen. I’m ok with that, I like those old Tales from the Crypt stories, but the horror is in the suspense and is lost by the revelation.

    There’s also something immoral about making children (and grand children and great grandchildren, etc) pay for the sins of the fathers. It works for horror, where danger and death visited upon the innocent IS the genre, but I don’t support or approve of the whole ‘oh, your ancestors did bad things so YOU should feel bad/pay’ grift.

    I like the tension here though. So I’d say I enjoy about 2/3 of the movie when I don’t know it’s…ghost pirates.

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    1. I don’t think the terror in horror films needs to represent any kind of real justice. It’s not like the movie ever really takes the side that the people deserve what they’re getting, though the priest seems to get close to that.

      I also like the ghost pirates image, probably because we never really get a good look at them, always hidden in shadow and fog. It may not be great, but I like it.

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