Part of the 1980's Project
Like his hero Howard Hawks, John Carpenter has traversed many a genre throughout his career, but since those genres he explored tilted towards the more fantastical persuasion, and his biggest early career success became a horror template, Carpenter has found himself ghettoized by the powers that be (*shakes fist* grr, powers that be!) as a “horror” filmmaker. An extremely unfair label considering that by 1980, he had already made a science fiction satire, a prison siege potboiler, a Hitchockian made for TV thriller, the aforementioned game changing slasher classic, and even a music biopic. The 1980’s would prove to be an even more fertile ground for Carpenter that would result in a distinctive creative period which found him continuing his genre hopping while managing to maintain his signature voice even as budgets increased and his projects were financed by major studios. Hey, there’s a reason his name was above all those titles!
The decade began with Carpenter’s theatrical follow-up to the box office success of Halloween, which was then the highest grossing independently produced film of all-time (he had directed the made-for-television Elvis between projects). Instead of repeating himself with another slasher film or a sequel (he would though write, produce and reshoot scenes for Universal’s 1981 Halloween II), he chose to pay tribute to the EC comics he grew up reading with a modern spin on an old fashioned ghost story, The Fog.
Like your average Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror issue, The Fog begins with a narrator. Here, John Houseman in a captain’s cap, tells his audience, both the group of campers he physical addresses and us, the viewers, about the strange fog the enveloped the town of Antonio Bay on the day of it’s discovery. We are then introduced to our cast of characters one by one: a priest (Hal Holbrook), a city official organizing the celebration of the town’s centennial (Janet Leigh), the DJ perched on top of a lighthouse who will be not only the voice, but the eyes, of the town (Adrienne Barbeau), a hitch-hiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the truck driver who picks her up and immediately jumps into bed with her (who else but Tom Atkins!). While most horror films of the 1980s are accused, and rightfully so in many instances, of foregoing character in favor of stereotypes and cardboard cut-outs whose deaths we’ll practically root for, The Fog is an exception. There’s not an ounce of fat on the film, yet Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill are able to give each character substance and a sense of history in every scene. The writing duo is aided by the able cast, almost entirely composed of adults and veteran actors, none of who display any hint of slumming in a horror picture.
As in EC comics, the central horror occurrences have their roots in retribution for past acts. The priest discovers upon finding his grandfather’s diary a cover-up where six would be leprosy suffering townsfolk were murdered by their disgusted brethren. At midnight on the centennial anniversary of Antonio Bay, the symbolic fog that masks the hideous truth from the town’s history is replaced by a real fog emerging over the Bay, with vengeance seeking ghosts on the hunt for six of their own victims as payback.
Carpenter’s craftsmanship here is unparalleled. The film moves quickly yet is full of rich details and a sense of both place and character. I’m not sure if this is the result of his frequent device of setting his films in both a confined space and over the course of a single day (see Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, The Thing, and the majority of Halloween and Prince of Darkness for examples) or simply a talent at narrative structure. Obviously, keeping good company is one key to his successes. Cinematographer Dean Cundey, who shot Halloween, returns and his compositions are deliberate and effective, most notably in a scene set at a morgue where a minimum of movement within the frame results in the film’s greatest scare. The pre-CG fog, a dry ice aficionado’s paradise, which Cundy backlights to appropriate eerie results, is another impressive feat that for the, what, 8,781,051st time proves the superiority of practical effects over their digital counterparts. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen the 2005 remake for a direct comparison, but actually considering the word of mouth on that one, let’s make that fortunately. On the subject of effects, The Fog features early work from Rob Bottin, whose make-up on the pirate zombie/ghosts are shown just enough to startle, but always in shadows, allowing the viewer’s imagination to add specific details.
For John Carpenter, The Fog is practically a home movie. He so fell in love with Antonio Bay location, Point Reyes, that he moved there, and the film is stock full of his friends and personal touches and references. In addition to past collaborators Debra Hill and Dean Cundey, jack of all trades (and future Halloween III: Season of the Witch director) Tommy Lee Wallace serves in capacity as editor, production designer and plays one of the ghosts. The cast features aside from Jamie Lee Curtis, returning Halloween veteran actors Nancy Loomis and Charles Cyphers, and even a speaking role for Carpenter himself. The characters’ names reference many friends or infatuations of Carpenter: Adrienne Barbeau’s (who was married to the director at the time) DJ shares a last name with Rio Bravo star John Wayne and the town doctor is none other then Dr. Phibes; Tom Atkins’ character is Nick Castle, the man behind Michael Meyer’s mask and other characters are named for Tommy Wallace and Dark Star co-writer and fellow USC alum Dan O’Bannon.
I have a half-baked theory that Carpenter has been so blasé about his films being remade because the result is his status is further cemented when the resulting inferior products show that there is more to the original films’ successes than the base elements, be it the elegance of his widescreen shot compositions, his willingness to end on an ambiguous note, the subtle flourishes throughout, his knack at straightforward storytelling or what have you. The Fog may not be his most immediate film, and it took this, my third viewing, to get to where it actually really clicked (I recommend viewing it on nothing less than a nice widescreen television) but its strengths cannot be denied. It kicked off an unbridled decade of creative triumphs for the director on the right foot.