There’s Something Evil Lurking in the Fog
After the success of his groundbreaking hit Halloween, John Carpenter eschewed the slasher genre in favor of The Fog, an atmospheric tale about a small California coastal town that becomes literally haunted by its past. Although it was received well in its time, Carpenter’s supernatural tale of revenge from beyond the grave failed to garner the same sort of fan enthusiasm as many of Carpenter’s later works. At the time, Carpenter was following up on the most successful horror movies ever made and both the critics and the audience were expecting something different from the director of Halloween. This initial disappointment might have limited the appeal of The Fog but in the following years, Carpenter’s movie got the praise and respect it deserves. Today it’s considered one of the crown jewels of an unbelievable stretch of writing, directing and producing some of the finest genre films back to back for almost two decades. In fact, Carpenter’s run making horror films from 1978 all the way up to 1995 is easily the most impressive of any American genre filmmaker and The Fog (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year) might just be his most underrated.
The Screenplay for The Fog is Great
The script, for starters, is profoundly original, and there are few, if any, films that come close to bearing many similarities. Written by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, The Fog is unique in that it features several stories within stories. The movie opens against the backdrop of a spine-chilling tale of drowned mariners and a 100-year-old shipwreck lying on the bottom of the sea while the peaceful community of the coastal town is preparing to celebrate its hundredth anniversary. However–as strange occurrences blemish the festivities, an unearthly ominous glowing fog rolls into Antonio Bay, leading to paranormal activity, unaccountable disappearances and the spilling of blood.
Carpenter immediately sets the tone perfectly in the prologue, opening with legendary British character actor John Houseman reciting a blood-curdling campfire tale about the history of the fictional town called Antonio Bay. We learn that the town’s founders used its lighthouse to purposely sink a ship named the Elizabeth Dane, which was carrying a colony of lepers that they were too afraid to allow on the island to help. They then took advantage of the situation, ceased the gold the ship was carrying and used the fortune to expand their small town; build its church and gain financial stability. One long century ago, a hideous crime was committed. Now, the dead pirates come back to life, ready to exact their revenge while searching for what is rightfully theirs. On the surface, the plot seems unsophisticated– but beneath the surface, The Fog has plenty to say and so do the characters that populate the film.
Storytelling is a Motif Throughout the Film
The Fog isn’t so much a ghost story, as much as it is a story about a town— and the stories about the people who populate Antonio Bay are just as important as the threat that emerges from the sea. In fact, a good majority of The Fog’s running time isn’t devoted to the ghosts themselves; instead, the movie focuses on several interconnecting stories and characters who happen to cross paths on a momentous night. From the opening prologue (which just so happens to be marked by phenomenal title sequence) every character in The Fog has their own story to tell, and every one of their stories, no matter how big or small, connects each of them to the overall picture: The free-spirited drifter Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis) shares stories of her adventures hitchhiking across the United States; Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) shares stories about the three local fishermen who have disappeared; Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) tells the story of his grandfather and the church he built; while Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) narrates the entire onslaught of Blake’s colony as the dead descend upon the living. Another storytelling device comes from the journal Father Malone discovers hidden inside the wall of the church; while the town gets ready for the big celebration, the priest reads various excerpts from the book written by one of the town’s founding fathers. And then there is the aforementioned prologue which features the story been told by the campfire.
The Central Theme
The Fog is a perfect template for a low-budget horror film since it uses a simple yet effective premise, practically devoid of bloodshed, and relying on suspense rather than gore. And like the best ghost stories, the central theme of the film revolves around sins of the past and how all too often, society chooses to cover up those sins and turn a blind eye. Father Malone says it best when he challenges the mayor who insists on continuing the grand centennial celebration: If we celebrate this town’s centennial, we will be celebrating murder! With The Fog, Carpenter is telling us that any attempt to hide such histories are pointless since the truth will eventually come out. Film critic, Chris Justice put it best when he wrote about the brick wall that conceals the fateful journal. As we watch Father Malone smash through the wall, it’s a stark visual reminder of how many layers of lies, stories, and time the townspeople have constructed to conceal such dangerous historical facts. With The Fog, John Carpenter seems to argue the sea never forgets, suggesting that whatever is buried at sea will eventually float to the surface and dark secrets will finally be unearthed. The ghosts have come back to both literally and metaphorically to revenge those who wronged them.
There are few films that capture the allure of living in a small coastal town better than John Carpenter’s The Fog. Antonio Bay (which is actually a small, unincorporated town located in Marin County) is the sort of municipality where everybody seems to know everybody on a first-name basis and the biggest crime you’ll witness is a janitor stealing a bottle of orange juice during his graveyard shift. It’s a quiet peaceful place where the local DJ broadcasts jazz in between the weather report and fishermen spend their nights trading stories about their wives and kids. But put aside the coastal iconography and friendly inhabitant— what makes this town so unique is the isolated picturesque lighthouse which doubles as a radio station and captures the menacing fog as it silently moves across the bay. It could easily be argued that the lighthouse itself is a character within the film and without it, the film would lose most of its magic.
Not only are the scenes of the lighthouse breathtaking, but the scenic views from the surrounding shore further enhances the claustrophobic and desolate feeling of Antonio Bay. Take, for example, the opening shot of the lighthouse which immediately foreshadows an entire town on the brink of chaos or the shot seen in the image above which shows the over 300 steps leading down to the lighthouse. Not only is the watchtower at the edge of the island but it is from the top of the lighthouse that our hero can communicate the dangers of the fog to the other townsfolk. And besides, how cool is it that the radio station is inside the lighthouse.
Adrienne Barbeau Steals the Spotlight
Sitting at the top of the lighthouse looking at the town below is the husky-voiced late-night KAB Radio DJ Stevie Wayne played by Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau. While all the actors do fine jobs, it’s only fitting that Barbeau spends most of the film in the lighthouse since she is the film’s shining light. Modeled after legendary deejay Alison Steele (a.k.a. The Nightbird), Barbeau delivers by far the best performance, establishing herself as a strong maternal presence, not just with her son, but the entire town. Not only does the unique position of the lighthouse allow her to see where the fog is moving next but thanks to her job working as a disk jockey, Wayne is able to inform the town about what’s going on via the airwaves. In many ways, she is the true hero of the film— a guardian angel who helps save the entire town by warning them of the invasion. And her performance is so good that despite being physically separated from the action throughout the entirety of the film (including the climax), the suspense noticeably eases off whenever she’s kept offscreen.
The Fog is certainly held together by Adrienne Barbeau’s Stevie Wayne but she’s not the only iconic horror scream queen in the film. Along for the ride was Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis who shares the screen with her real-life mom Janet Leigh (Psycho)— as well as Charles Cyphers, who had also appeared in Halloween; and Tom Atkins, who would later take the lead in other genre hits such as Maniac Cop and Night of the Creeps. Watching Curtis and her mom on the same set is fascinating even if they don’t share many scenes. Even more interesting is how the film features two heroines (Barbeau and Curtis), each with their own separate storyline and who yet somehow never once meet. The rest of the cast also shines with Hal Holbrook playing the curmudgeonly old priest, John Houseman making an appearance in the film’s provocative opening and Regina Waldon playing the sweet Mrs. Kobritz. Even Carpenter himself makes a Hitchcockesque cameo early in the film as Bennett.
The Fog is one of Carpenter’s Best-Looking Films
No matter how many famous faces are in front of the camera, it’s John Carpenter’s direction that elevates The Fog to be more than your average ghost story. It might not be the best Carpenter film, but The Fog is a solid piece of horror filmmaking that is tremendously well-shot and edited. It’s really is amazing how Carpenter keeps the pace moderate, making the most of every scene— the editing is so sharp, in fact, it’s worth noting the film runs a brisk 89 minutes.
With The Fog, Carpenter deepened his technical virtuosity and once again proved that no matter how small the budget, he could turn out pictures that look ten times their cost. Along with his frequent collaborator and cinematographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter decided that the best way to mask The Fog‘s limited resources was to shoot in the biggest way possible. The duo chose to film in widescreen Panavision making the most of the vast seaside locations while enhancing the isolation of the coastal town setting. Shooting in 2.35:1 widescreen gave The Fog the look and soul of classic Hollywood films and made it look far more expensive than it really is.
When the fog rolls in… the terror begins!
For my money, The Fog is one of Carpenter’s best-looking films (maybe his best) and for a low-budget film, the fog effects are note-perfect which is saying a lot since The Fog was the first of Carpenter’s films to require extensive special effects. In order to get the job done, the fog itself was filmed in-camera courtesy of Rick Baker’s protege, Rob Bottin (who also played the leader of the pirates, Captain Blake). The special effect team used a real fog machine and had the brilliant idea of reversing several shots in post-production so that it looked like the fog was heading towards the camera, instead of away. Of course, it also helps that the dense fog gave Carpenter a huge break on his FX budget since it helped obscure the boogeymen who are mostly seen in silhouettes with glowing eyes, only offering the briefest of glimpses of their rotting corpses. Meanwhile, it thematically tied in nicely to the central theme. Fog is often a staple in horror movies but rarely has fog itself become a character in a movie. Carpenter’s use of the fog as a metaphor for our capacity to obscure and/or conceal the truth is nothing short of brilliant.
Atmosphere as Thick as the Fog Itself
In many ways, The Fog is Carpenter’s most Hitchcockian film even if it looks like a cross between EC Comics, H.P. Lovecraft, and Hammer Horror. Hitchcock’s influence is visible throughout The Fog with the very casting of Janet Leigh (the star of Psycho) and the lighthouse rooftop scene which is a direct homage to North by Northwest. There’s also the mentioning of Bodega Bay, the name of the small town from The Birds, and much like the titular birds in that film, the fog here is a malevolent natural phenomenon that invades an idyllic location. And like the best of Hitchcock, Carpenter creates suspense by focusing many scenes on what we don’t see. Combined with the slick visual style and Carpenter’s infamous synth soundtrack, The Fog is certainly is his most moody pic.
As an exercise in creating vignettes of mounting dread, The Fog works extremely well. The atmosphere is thick (as thick as the titular fog) and despite keeping most deaths off-screen and having very little blood in the movie— The Fog can be scary and features some truly effective jump scares that are punctuated with diegetic sounds as opposed to the usual cheap sound effects. Modern-day filmmakers could certainly learn a thing or two from this classic.
Another Great Score by John Carpenter
Finally, the score for Carpenter’s atmospheric chiller is easily one of his best. It’s amazing how he was able to do so much with so little and even more astonishing is that the entire score was rewritten and recorded a month before the film’s release in order to better match several last-minute reshoots and re-edits. As he has proved time and time again (starting with the memorable theme from Halloween), John Carpenter is a composer who can turn minimalism into a thing of art. With only a few piano chords, eerie electronic waves, tubular bells and foghorn-like sound effects, the soundtrack for The Fog remains Carpenter’s most effective and atmospherically powerful. It truly is impressive how the soundtrack provides the film with an acute sense of rhythm, composition, and tone. Even better is the Jazz soundtrack that accompanies his score and features music from various artists including David Lindup, Robert Cornford, and Steve Gray. There aren’t many horror films that can proudly boast a jazzy soundtrack— The Fog, however, is one of them.
John Carpenter’s tale of vengeance beyond the grave…
With The Fog, John Carpenter once again proved why he was one of the very best in the game— and while it may not be as iconic as Halloween, The Fog is a beautifully-made, atmospheric and ominous supernatural thriller with top-notch performances by an amazing cast and just the right balance of special effects artistry. Ultimately, it’s one of the best ghost movies ever made and a movie that adds plenty to Carpenter’s famed moniker as a master of horror and suspense.
Editor’s Note: For more on The Fog, check out the Sordid Cinema Podcast embedded below.