The Fog (1980) Review
The virtues of John Carpenter’s The Fog are those of the traditional well-told ghost story. At it’s best, there’s a quiet menace about it which might have warmed the heart of Montague Rhodes James. It’s flaws, on the other hand, are those of the crass horror flick which doesn’t have any faith in the intelligence of the audience. Indeed, the lack of narrative logic and the recourse to occasional gory deaths would both have made James and most of his contemporaries quite apoplectic. But when a film is as well paced and carefully mounted as this one, it’s easy to forgive some of its weak spots.
Set in Antonio Bay, a small, quiet community by the sea, The Fog is about the events of April 21st; the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the town. At midnight, a variety of strange events occur – glass cracking, electrical interference – and in the church, Father Malone (Holbrook) is alarmed when a rock falls from the wall, revealing an antique diary written by one of his forebears. The owner of the town’s radio station KAB, Stevie Wayne (Barbeau), warns of a fog bank rolling in, irrationally against the wind. Soon, the crew of a boat have been mysteriously killed by red-eyed figures who emerge from a strange vessel named the Elizabeth Dane which, we discover, crashed against the rocks one hundred years before. It gradually becomes apparent that the deliberate scuppering of the Elizabeth Dane, the anniversary of the town and the fog are all interlinked and before the day is out, death begins to stalk the town as the fog steers its implacable path.
John Carpenter’s film Halloween was such a stunning achievement (for my money, the best B-Movie ever made) that it led to much discussion as to how he would manage to follow it. The Fog took many people by surprise, not least the Avco-Embassy executives who saw his first cut. Originally devoid of gory horror moments, the film was a stately ghost story which owed more to the films of Val Lewton than the slashers which were beginning to gain in popularity. Fearing negative audience reaction, Carpenter added some shock moments of bloody horror, but the film is by no means devoid of the quietly creepy atmosphere which was intended. Just as Halloween is a slasher movie with virtually no slashing, The Fog is a ghost story in which the ghosts make only relatively brief appearances. The fog itself is used as a metaphor for the ghosts of the past, looming over Antonio Bay as a reminder of the cancer at the heart of its history. The first hour, give or take some concessions to the more restless members of the audience, is brilliantly paced, offering a slow but riveting crescendo towards a final half hour of relentless horror. Carpenter takes great care to introduce the characters and give them enough quirks to be identifiable – the excellent double act of Janet Leigh and Nancy Loomis as the organisers of the centenary celebrations is a case is point – while giving us the context upon which the horror is based. The best scene in this first two-thirds is when Hal Holbrook’s alcoholic priest tells us the story of how the town was founded on the murder of the innocent. It’s a quiet scene of immense horror which gives us a powerfully human explanation behind the events to come and is far more effective than the more familiar moments of ghostly figures wreaking revenge with hook and cutlass.
Carpenter’s writing is generally economical and imaginative and he has a great facility for off-hand comedy in exchanges between characters. But it has to be said that the flaws of his later films can be found here as well. For one thing, there’s a lack of narrative logic. We’re told that the fog causes temperatures to drop dramatically but why does this happen in the town earlier before the fog has actually come anywhere near ? What is the explanation behind the electrical interference which resembles the early scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind ? What is the reason for the corpse of the sailor suddenly coming back to life when Jamie Lee Curtis is left alone, apart from offering a totally irrational scare moment. For another, the ghosts of the Elizabeth Dane crew seem to kill irrationally at one moment while targeting the descendants of their killers at another. More to the point, how do we explain the fog suddenly appearing again in the ‘twist’ ending ? None of these problems spoil the film irreparably but they do make it less effective on subsequent viewings when you have time to think about the plot. A more serious complaint – albeit a matter of personal taste – is Carpenter’s habit of intercutting several storylines during the climax. I personally find this a little irritating because it breaks up our involvement with individual characters, although at least it’s clear what’s going on in this film whereas in a later film – notably Prince Of Darkness - the effect is one of narrative incoherence. To be fair, some viewers like this more than others but I find that the breaking up of suspenseful set-pieces renders them less exciting than they should have been.
It’s easy to forgive these problems, however, when the good things in the film are taken into account. That wonderfully atmospheric prologue for instance, where John Houseman’s old sea dog tells a ghost story to a group of kids around a campfire. His sepulchral tones are the perfect introduction to this film and it’s a shame that we don’t see him again. I also love the cinematography by Dean Cundey which is evocative, particularly in the stunningly beautiful daytime scenes, and menacing once the fog begins to take hold. Mention should also be made of some stunning production design, especially for the ghostly Elizabeth Dane.
The performances are uniformally excellent from one of the best casts that Carpenter ever assembled. Jamie Lee Curtis seems to be gaining in confidence and presence before our eyes and she’s well matched with the reliable Tom Atkins – although what she sees in him that persuades her to fuck him a few hours after meeting him is anyone’s guess. Quite apart from anything else, he’s so uncouth that he wears his vest to bed when he’s got company. Adrienne Barbeau, at the time Mrs Carpenter, is also very good and a strong, independent female heroine is always a pleasure to see. I’m not too sure about her radio station however. On the available evidence, the station seems to play nothing except piano blues and MOR jazz, all of it likely to induce narcolepsy in the most tolerant listener, which surely renders her promises to keep people awake somewhat redundant. Janet Leigh is, as mentioned before, good fun and Nancy Loomis is so effective as her cynical foil that her subsequent disappearance from our screens is a crying shame. The most effective casting, however, is Hal Holbrook as the priest. In the original script, it seems that Father Malone was a much stronger personality and the actor originally considered, Christopher Lee, wanted to play him as the ‘father of the community’. But I really do think that Holbrook’s approach of making him neurotic and terrified is far more effective and his nervous muttering is especially successful in the final minutes of the film.
I don’t think that The Fog is quite in the first rank of Carpenter’s work. It’s a little too ‘bitty’ and inconsistent, certainly far more so than the beautifully streamlined Halloween and Assault On Precinct 13. Nor does it have the intellectual bravado and cunningly structured suspense of The Thing. But it’s still a good, effective film which is particularly pleasurable to watch around this time of year and, if you watch it alone just as the sun is going down, I can guarantee that Carpenter’s creepy music is bound to get you wondering if someone, or something, is pussy-footing around upstairs.
Momentum’s new Region 2 release of The Fog, spread out over two discs, is largely the same as the single disc Region 1 MGM release which has been available for a couple of years.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. That’s the first bit of good news as anyone who has ever tried to watch a pan and scan copy of the film will testify. Indeed, in some respects the good news continues. This is a crisp and detailed image which captures the atmosphere of the film without the distraction of print damage. Some of the daytime exterior shots are particularly stunning with rich, full colours. However, there is an unfortunate downside. The key night-time scenes, when the fog rolls in, demonstrate a good deal of blocky artifacting, often within the fog itself. It is, however, only fair to say that this is a problem on the region 1 disc as well and may well have been hard to avoid given the nature of the photography. Some reviewers have complained of excessive grain but I thought this was suitably film-like and not excessive.
A choice of soundtracks has been provided. You can choose to listen to a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the theatrical soundtrack or the original mono track. Regular readers will have no doubt about which I preferred. The 5.1 remix is reasonably restrained and faithful but it sounds artificial and not always entirely appropriate for the feel of a given scene. The mono track is much better and has been very well transferred to disc.
The extras are identical to those on the region 1 disc. The film is accompanied by an excellent commentary from John Carpenter and Debra Hill. The former is, as ever, a compelling speaker and you could happily listen to him all night. The latter acts as a prompt, encouraging memories and observations without being too pushy, and she comes across as the tough, astute woman she must have had to be during her career. More is heard from these two in the main retrospective documentary, “Tales From The Mist”, which covers the making of the film and its reception with a reasonable degree of detail. There are clearly areas of conflict here which aren’t fully explored, especially between Hill and Carpenter and the people at Avco-Embassy, but otherwise there’s quite a lot of enjoyment to be had from this piece. It’s accompanied on the disc by an amusing 1980 featurette which is brief but delightfully dated. It’s quite alarming, by the way, to see how much Carpenter seems to have aged over the past half-century, especially when Debra Hill and the much-missed Janet Leigh look much the same as they did way back when.
We also get a reasonably well presented storyboard-to-film comparison, a collection of teasers, trailers and TV Spots, some of them in very ropey condition, a group of mildly amusing outtakes and a generous photo gallery with some great behind-the-scenes stills from the film.
The menus are beautifully designed and very atmospheric. The film is subtitled in English and a range of other languages but the extras are only subtitled in German, Italian and Spanish. There are 18 chapter stops.
The Fog is an economical, brilliantly paced and genuinely sinister movie which only falters when it forgets to have faith in the intelligence of its audience. It remains one of Carpenter’s most likeable films. Momentum’s DVD offers a fair-to-middling transfer of the film along with some good extra features and is therefore cautiously recommended – although the virtually identical Region 1 release is available more cheaply for those with multi-region players.