John Carpenter: The Collection: The Fog Review
Beside a campfire on the beach in a small Northern Californian town, Machen (John Houseman) snaps his pocket watch shut. He stares into the faces of the teenage boys around him. It is five minutes to midnight and he has time for one more story. The story that Machen tells is set admidst the coming centennial celebrations in Antonio Bay. In the days before the party begins, a strangek glowing fog is seen rolling in from sea. In town, strange things begin happening. Lights turn on and off for no reason, glass smashes and, at the gas station, the pumps flood petrol over the forecourt. Strange figures appear in the fog. Out at sea, the crew of a fishing boat are brutally killed while, inland, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), finds the diary of his grandfather from the year in which Antonio Bay was founded. Reading it, he learns that Antonio Bay prospered on murder and bloodshed.
This diary tells how the town's founding fathers lit fires along the beach to draw in the Elizabeth Dane on a fog-bound night. The Elizabeth Dane was a ship owned by Blake, a wealthy man ill with leprosy who intended on using his riches to establish a colony near to where Antonio Bay would eventually be founded. The diary tells of how the Elizabeth Dane was plundered for its gold and, with it, Antonio Bay grew to be a prosperous little town. All of those onboard the ship died that night and, now, one hundred years, they have returned in the fog to take their revenge and to take back their gold.
There are often glaring gaps in the logic of a John Carpenter film. A perfect example is of Michael Myers stealing a car and driving it out of the institution in which he has been imprisoned since the age of six. Carpenter never quite explains how Myers learned to drive a car but neither does he shirk from telling the audience that he doesn't intend to either. Instead, it is inferred that it doesn't matter. What is important is that Myers is sufficiently terrifying as to just know how to drive a car. Come The Fog, I've always been troubled as to how the diary-writing grandfather of the apparently Catholic Father Malone was also a priest. Such a notion goes against what this Catholic knows of the Vatican's teaching on priests marrying, having children or both but Carpenter seems not to care. What matters is that this man was not only one of the founding fathers of Antonio Bay but that he not only kept a record and that he bore the guilt of those who plundered the Elizabeth Dane.
As a ghost story, The Fog is terrific. The locations that double for Antonio Bay are lovingly shot by Carpenter. The acting is good (in a cameo, Carpenter is the only actor who lets the film's cast down), Dean Cundey's cinematography is stunning in its simplicity and Carpenter finds room for Halloween alumni Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis. Even the sight of Janet Leigh co-starring with her daughter is a welcome one, particularly after Leigh's early exit in a previous turn in the genre, that of Psycho. But what's best about The Fog is the atmosphere that Carpenter brings to the film. Suspense builds slowly. Carpenter's relaxed pace and DJ Stevie Wayne's (Adrienne Barbeau) easy listening jazz and pop imply a town at ease with itself. But Carpenter drops hints of trouble with the finding of a gold coin in the water, of a piece of wood with Elizabeth Dane carved in it and of Father Malone's discovery of the diary. Soon, the blue skies of daylight turn to night and the figures in the fog, the ghostly sighting of the Elizabeth Dane and the strange goings-on throughout the town all add to the sense of mystery. There's a genuinely eerie feel to the film, particularly as the fog rolls in off the ocean. So long as one doesn't come to The Fog expecting lashings of gore, it doesn't disappoint. Indeed, if one comes in search of a mystery and of ghosts, The Fog is quite brilliant.
The pity about the film is that, after Halloween, everyone expected something more. Those who financed it, those who worked on it and even Carpenter himself lost faith in the film after seeing the original cut. As Carpenter says in the bonus material that accompanies this film, "It just wasn't any good!" That Cronenberg had just released Scanners only added to his and producer Debra Hill's worries. An exploding head left the gentle scares of The Fog looking decidedly old-fashioned. Feeling defeated by the experience, Carpenter went back to Antonio Bay and shot a good deal of new footage for the film, including more graphic shots of gore. This viewer isn't sure that they add anything to the film. Indeed, it's more that they detract from the ghostly chills of The Fog, which are all the better for being old-fashioned. The corpse that rises up off the mortuary table feels unnecessary while the various killings are cut into the film no better than had another director finished the film according to the whims of its financiers without Carpenter's involvement. Pace, atmosphere and style are sacrificed for a shambling ghoul stepping out of the fog. Others are simply cheap scares, such as the corpse that falls out of the locker onto Jamie Lee Curtis.
What becomes of The Fog is that a superb first half that's let down by a final forty-five minutes in which the actors are threatened by undead of the Elizabeth Dane. Even then, the gore that so concerned Carpenter and Hill never materialises. Instead, we have these monsters stumble through the mist to reach in through windows, smash their way through doors or slowly climb ladders in search of their victims. The bigger problem, though, comes back to that gap in the logic of the film. One can accept that Father Malone may have had a grandfather that was also a priest for the sake of simply getting on with the film but, unlike, say, Eva Galli of Ghost Story, the victims of the plundering of the Elizabeth Dane don't seem to know quite who to kill. Other than Malone, the six founding fathers don't appear to have any grandchildren who remained in Antonio Bay. Instead, Andy Wayne's (Ty Mitchell) babysitter is murdered, as is a chatty weatherman. The only crime that these two seemed to have committed was their answering the door when the ghouls came knocking.
So not a great film and probably not even one of Carpenter's best but I have a liking for it nonetheless. Putting aside all the problems with it, it has such a great atmosphere that it's impossible not to fall for it, particularly when Carpenter, at least back in 1980, was able to make a cheap film look as good as this.
Like all of these releases, this looks to be exactly the same as that issued by Momentum in 2004, down to having the same set of extras. That said, that wasn't a bad release and nor is this. Reviewing the disc at the time, Mike Sutton said, "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." That's a good review of the look of this DVD, which is fine in daylight and in the early part of the film but which takes a bit of a tumble come the fog. In particular, a wide shot of Stevie Wayne driving through the Northern Californian countryside looks great while the lighting in Father Malone's church gives it a peacefulness that is at odds with what's going on outside. However, the fog gives the DVD some problems and they're not dealt with entirely with this transfer.
There is a choice of the original DD2.0 mono soundtrack or a DD5.1 remix - again, these have been brought over from the Momentum release, and both are fine. I preferred the DD2.0, as I often do, feeling that the surround remix did nothing but divert some of the soundtrack towards the rear channels to give the impression of space. Finally, there are no subtitles
Commentary: John Carpenter and Debra Hill are together for this track and as you would expect of a couple of old friends, they get on very well together, talking not just about the movie they're watching but also their trip to England and to Stonehenge, which inspired The Fog, and their reasons for making it in the first place. As friends, they show a good deal of respect for one another and while there may not be so many laughs in this as there would be in a Carpenter/Russell track, it's probably more informative for that. Hill, in particular, is very good as regards the producer's role, explaining the breakdown of the film's budget, its shoot and its cast, even to the minutiae as regards the music that Stevie Wayne would play, the cheap scares and John Carpenter's acting. It's also interesting to hear their thoughts on the characters played by Nancy Loomis and Jamie Lee Curtis and how those roles changed in between Halloween and The Fog.
Tales From The Mist - Inside The Fog (27m57s): Like the commentary, Carpenter is fairly frank as regards his troubles on The Fog. Unlike many a director, who might say that their film perhaps needed a nip and a tuck here or there, Carpenter says, of the original cut of The Fog, "It sucked! It was terrible!" Debra Hill and Carpenter explain the reasons behind this thinking better on the commentary - Hill talks about Cronenberg having released Scanners shortly before The Fog and about how audience's expectations as regards what was possible with gore had shifted considerably - but this goes on to record the reshoots well and what changed between the two versions. Otherwise, it's a fairly typical making-of but these moments of honesty make it worth watching should you have an interest in this movie.
Finally, there is a Theatrical Trailer (1m00s).