The Fog (1980)

Touch of the vapors. A crazy leper fog ghost waits in vain for someone to give him five. “The Fog.”

Directed by John Carpenter. Written by John Carpenter, Debra Hill. Produced by Charles B. Bloch, Debra Hill, Barry Bernardi, Pegi Brotman. Music by John Carpenter. Photographed by Dean Cundey. Edited by Charles Bornstein, Tommy Lee Wallace. Production designed by Tommy Lee Wallace. Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, John Houseman, Tom Atkins, James Canning, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis, Ty Mitchell, Hal Holbrook.

The Fog is a horror movie with a promising premise, skillful technical credits, decent acting and a respectable pedigree. But it’s not a story very well told, and (more importantly) it’s not very scary, which is unfortunate since it comes from one of the fathers of modern horror, John Carpenter. Carpenter found major earnings with Halloween (1978), and The Fog was his first movie in the wake of that bonanza. It’s a minor effort, perhaps because after making such a daunting success as Halloween, Carpenter felt like doing a little five-fingered exercise, just to take some of the pressure off. The problem is, I think he may have taken off too much.

The setting is a seaside small town in northern California, which is celebrating it’s centennial, which of course will go off without a hitch (hollow laugh). An old man (John Houseman) tells a spooky story, and that serves as an effective curtain-raiser for what follows in the town below: car alarms blare spontaneously, strange disturbances march through a grocery store, and a brick inside an old church removes itself so that Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) can find and read a diary of something monstrous that happened a century ago. No one is better at looking wizened and pensive as Hal Holbrook.

Turns out that a century ago, a man set sail to turn a chunk of land north of the prospective town into a leper colony, so the town elders got together, set a bonfire, and let the ship crash into the rocks, seduced by the phony beacon. Now the lepers are back and they want blood, materializing out of an amorphous fog that rolls against the wind. This taps into our fears of our own societal past: e.g., that our history is a sham, and our safety purchased with blood. Due to the relative youth of the United States as nation, it’s a distinctly American paranoia and good fodder for a horror film; Stephen King has probably mined maybe fifty books or so out of the topic. This particular story won’t give lepers a good name, but every horror story needs an “other,” so what can you do?

Like any good horror storyteller worth his salt, Carpenter sets his outlandish story against a backdrop that labors to be as realistic as possible, following a swath of characters that go about what they believe to be a normal day. A hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) gets a ride from a trucker (Tom Atkins), and they fall into bed in an uncomplicated fashion. Meanwhile, one of the leaders of the town festival (Janet Leigh) meets with Father Malone and learning the awful truth. Meanwhile, a precocious kid (Ty Mitchell) finds a mysterious piece of driftwood. Meanwhile,  the kid’s mom (Adrienne Barbeau) starts to get the suspicion that something’s wrong, and she hosts a radio show in a lighthouse where she can watch the fog roll in and comment on town events, just like Radio Raheem. These characters all have names, but let’s face it. It doesn’t really matter.

So the concept is drawn, and the characters are in place. And then that’s basically it. Having set up the game board with some skill, Carpenter’s actual strategy to play seems curiously unimaginative. The ghosts appear out of the fog. They kill random people. The humans investigate and get worried. The fog starts coming after them, although really anyone in town should be a target, yes? Wash, rinse, repeat. The finale is one of those set pieces where ghosts invade a church while innocents scramble on the rooftop and Father Malone invokes a desperate ritual. Yes, yes, fine. But not much to get worked up about. Oh, and we also get that old standby the “we beat them…or did we?!” moment.

I think the fatal flaw in Carpenter and producer Debra Hill’s script is that not much meaningful effort is spent envisioning the ghosts. Their motivations are murky–some speculation is thrown to fact that they’re claiming six victims to take the place of the six town elders that caused their death, but that just makes the attacks arbitrary murders, and there’s a whole lot of doubt that that’s all they want. So what else? And some of the ghosts’ actions are downright puzzling–not in a frightening way, but more in a “what was the point of that?” way. Example: the ghosts kill three fishermen out at sea and then dump two of the bodies but leave a third on board, moving it to a secret location and then making it look like he drowned, so much so that the town coroner is stumped. For what purpose did the ghosts do this? To provide no clues of supernatural intervention? Are they shy? Later, a child is terrorized in his own house by a spectral invader, who is temporarily subdued when the kid locks the door to his bedroom. Here I’m thinking: what kind of ghost travels a long way over the sea and to the mainland through intelligent vapor and yet is frustrated by a door?

We don’t go to horror movies for logic, of course. Well, maybe a little, because there have to be rules so that we can understand that things are escalating, even if we’re in the dark about how. But for the most part, we want a horror movie to scare and thrill us, and in exchange we’ll give up a little disbelief. Sadly, The Fog is a near-miss here, because although the idea of the fog-ghosts is interesting, it’s lacking in its execution. And once we see them up close, the air goes completely out of the film’s tires; the ghosts are not scary at all. None of them even make sounds, instead resorting to banging on doors and windows with their scabby hands, swords and hooks, and the result is comical. We need a phrase for any horror movie that falls apart once its villain finally shows up and proves himself laughable. Perhaps Sleepy Hollow Syndrome. The Birdemic blues? Oh, I know: Darkness Falls doldrums!

It’s a shame, because I want to point out that this is a well-made movie, and it develops a nice atmosphere especially in its early goings. I liked the way DP Dean Cundey highlights open spaces that still feel claustrophobic. The seaside locations are used well. Carpenter’s music score is moody and evocative; it feels like the ruminations of someone who is half-asleep and vulnerable. The special effects are decent throughout.

And the acting is good. Poor Jamie Lee Curtis, who survived Halloween by being a dutifully competent babysitter, is back for another helping this time, and her hitchhiker is a prime example of the way Carpenter is decent at developing characters that don’t insist upon themselves. They have characteristics, but they don’t whinge, or explain, they keep to themselves. A lot of the dialogue works. Barbeau’s radio DJ character has a nice, small-town way about her, and there’s a fun running joke about the number of lonely male listeners she has who put her, unseen, on a pedestal.

Carpenter helped revitalize the horror genre and gave rise to numerous copycats. He effectively set the pace for modern horror, although that achievement has now been supplanted by new innovators who have gradually hit the throttle more and more. By now some of his work feels inescapably quaint, and yet all told I’d still rather appreciate it than much of what’s new. Carpenter had a knack for pace and atmosphere, and he held gore in consideration. These are qualities many filmmakers lack, and that’s a shame. The Fog may be a small work in the Carpenter canon, but it has its charms. Like the titular subject it slips right through your fingers. But it’s nice to look at, just the same.

GRADE: C+

NOTE: It behooves me to remind you that Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis are mother and daughter and now here they are in the same movie. The movie doesn’t do much with this, but it’s kinda fun just the same.

Also, that’s Carpenter as the church janitor in the beginning.

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