The Fog (1980)

The_fog_1980_poster“This town sits around for a hundred years and nothing happens and then one night the whole place falls apart.”

The Scoop: 1980 R, directed by John Carpenter and starring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Janet Leigh

Tagline: What you can’t see won’t hurt you… it’ll kill you!

Summary Capsule: A small California coastal town about to celebrate its 100th anniversary is haunted by the horrors of its past, which come shrouded in a glowing fog.

Kyle’s Rating: More fun than Halloween 2 but man, what a letdown

Kyle’s Review: At his best as a director, John Carpenter cannot be defeated. He has a distinctive artistic vision, he’s gifted enough with a synthesizer and its friends to create his own film scores, and he knew how to create tense atmosphere way before Asian horror imports taught everyone else how it’s done. At his worst, his stuff is still watchable, just fairly tedious to sit through because it fails to hold your interest.

The Fog is one of his weaker films; even Carpenter himself admits that. You could argue that it was pretty ripe for a remake. I actually never truly got to watch The Fog for a very long time because the few times I had tried to sit and watch it, my attention wandered. But knowing that Maggie Grace was involved in the remake, and with the much-ballyhooed special edition DVD of the original re-re-released at a wondrously low price, I decided it was time to buy the disc and actually watch it.

Guess what? I loved… well, I liked it. Yeah. That’s the best I can do. But let me tell you that I like it in much the same way I like the made-for-television The Beast with William Petersen, where it’s definitely not the greatest thing ever but it’s such dumb, solid fun that I’ll watch it every time I notice it’s on.

Actually, The Fog seemed purposely made not to be loveable in any way. The story is effective but falls apart towards the end; the twist about the inherent “evil” of what’s within the fog is surprising but Carpenter seems unwilling or incapable of allowing the layers of moral complexities to come to the forefront. The characters are all immediately memorable at first sight (thanks to the talented and quirky cast assembled) but aren’t really allowed to shine in any exceptional way, due largely to the limitations enforced by the story. Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill reveal in the DVD commentary that The Fog was a film that they made and then re-made again when the first try didn’t really work, and that results in a slight patchwork feel at times. Nothing too distracting, but it really does keep you at a distance.

There is quite a bit to like about The Fog, though. The California coastal town of Antonio Bay (actually Point Reyes, CA) is beautiful and its beauty is practically a main character in the film: it’s gorgeous, and to someone like me whose idea of a faraway vacation is simply driving up the west coast, it’s like a travel guide. Those quirky characters are also a breath of fresh air, feeling like real people because they seem to exist outside of this horror film that happens to include them, versus being characters whom exist only to populate the running time. I like the overall approach to both cinematography and story, because it’s gorgeous to look at and it’s a lot different than most ghost stories, even if that story stuff doesn’t hold up to the end. Oh well. I will say it’s a lot more impressive and noteworthy in the execution than something like Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, but certainly nothing anything like a horror classic. A lot of fun, though.

I never apologize for my love for Carpenter’s work, because his distinctive films are always fun to watch. I’m very surprised it took me so dang long to actually watch The Fog, because it’s so clearly a Carpenter film and it’s surprisingly good, if you like this sort of thing. I think ultimately that old saying about the sum of its parts being better than the whole really applies to The Fog, because on the whole it’s kind of a weird ghost story that peters out at the end but man are all of the individual elements really impressive and cool. I’ll gladly enjoy this film whenever I want a cool ghost story, though I would love if the remake took all of the original’s promise and delivers a much stronger film 25 years later. Here’s hoping, but until I know for sure, you can’t go wrong with the moody The Fog. Be sure to learn from the town’s settlers’ mistakes, though: gold isn’t worth any murderous fog banks!

Justin’s Rating: AHOYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!

Justin’s Review: Question: have you ever been to a school play? Or been in one? If you answered, “yes”, then chances are you were witness to one of the tried-and-true special effects of school theater production: the fog machine. I was in a good half-dozen plays and musicals in high school myself, and I think that in each and every one the director managed to finagle in an excuse to use the fog machine. Sure, it looks kinda cool, particularly when you play lights through it, and it leaves the astringent tang in the air for all to enjoy, but it’s incredibly easy to go overboard with it, to the point where you have vague shadows in a heavy cloud bank on stage reciting Shakespeare and hoping like heck that they won’t fall off the edge. The Fog is all about the love for this cheesy special effect, for better and for much worse.

Over many decades, John Carpenter has helmed some horror cult classics, a couple decent action pieces, and a number of spectacularly bad duds. While his record is spotty, his enthusiasm can’t be denied: the boy pumps out the wacky ideas like there’s no tomorrow, and often pulls multiple duties as producer, director, composer (not one of his strengths), and even actor. Even when I’m not crazy about a particular film of his — or, say, anything he’s done since 1995 — I just can’t put him down too harshly, because he has the energetic and fun spirit of a guy who genuinely likes entertaining horror flicks.

The Fog was Carpenter’s follow-up to the smash Halloween, a boring slasher in my opinion, but one important for its place in horror film history. Instead of continuing on with the coming 80’s future of slasher success, Carpenter returned to an old horror staple of ridiculous threats and monsters-a-go-go. It’d serve him well for coming projects like The Thing and In The Mouth of Madness, but The Fog doesn’t ever connect the way that it should.

For one thing, The Fog spends way too much of its 90-minute run slowly building up to the anticipated foggy assault. A buildup of suspense is a must in horror, of course, but sometimes you need to kick things along a bit more. Even with all that time, we barely get to know the characters of Antonio Bay (a town whose name instantly registers “Antonio Banderas” every time I heard it) or care about them, for that matter. Jamie Lee Curtis is a hitchhiker who drifts into town in time for bad stuff to happen and a few opportunities to shriek about it, but since she looks old and scarecrowy even in 1980, I’m kind of repulsed by her. There’s a number of other vanilla characters including the rugged man-interest, scared priest, fat weatherman, radio DJ-in-peril, cute kid who unwittingly unleashes evil, even fatter sheriff, mayor’s wife, and so on. We. Don’t. Care. All we want is to get to the super-scary fog and some serious ghost pirate action.

For if anything’s going to save The Fog, it’s that the real villains are (ready for a Scooby-Doo moment?) guh-guh-guh-ghost pirates! Or leper ghost colonists in search of their stolen gold, however you want to phrase it. Hey, any movie with ghost pirates, and I’m there, baby. But if anything was going to sink The Fog, it’s… well, the fog that masks the ghost pirates 100% of the time. Carpenter does try his best to install a healthy fear for the glowing fog, but it’s just not an instinctively terrifying weather phenomena. It’s fog. Turn on your lights and drive a bit slower, and you’ll be okay. Roll up your windows to avoid picking up the pirates, and you’re ducky.

Nothing really did it for me with this movie. I did get a good laugh at how courteous the ghost pirates were in knocking on the doors of the homes of their victims, then politely waiting for the doors to be opened.

*ding-dong*

“Honey, can you get the door? I think it’s the ghost pirates. Or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Either way, bring your shotgun!”

ARRR! We be lookin' fer Jack Sparrow, know the scallywag?

ARRR! We be lookin’ fer Jack Sparrow, know the scallywag?

Intermission!

  • After a rough cut editing the movie appeared to be much too short for a theatrical release (about 80min). John Carpenter subsequently added the prolog with the Old Captain telling Ghost stories to fascinated children by a campfire.
  • Although this was essentially a low budget independent film, John Carpenter chose to shoot the movie in anamorphic widescreen Panavision. This decision gave the film a grander feel for the viewer so it didn’t seem like a low budget horror film.
  • John Carpenter admitted that his inspiration for the story was the British film The Trollenberg Terror which dealt with monsters hiding in the clouds.
  • Adrienne Barbeau and Jamie Lee Curtis, the leads, do not appear together in any scenes.
  • The Edgar Allan Poe quote at the beginning of the film is the final two lines of his poem “A Dream Within a Dream”.
  • A lot of the usual Carpenter cast show up in this film, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Nancy Loomis, Darwin Johnson, Charles Cyphers, and even John Carpenter himself as the church handyman.
  • When one of the sailors peers out of the ship’s window for a fog bank in the background, the superimposed fog appears over the edges of the window.
  • As Father Malone flips through his ancestor’s journal, you can momentarily see obscenities unrelated to the story written on the preceding page.
  • Fog is cloud in contact with the ground. It occurs when moisture from the surface of the Earth evaporates; as this evaporated moisture moves upward, it cools and condenses into the familiar phenomenon of fog. Fog differs from cloud only in that fog touches the surface of the Earth, while clouds do not.

Groovy Quotes

Kathy Williams: Sandy, you’re the only person I know who can make “Yes, Ma’am” sound like “screw you”.
Sandy Fadel: Yes, Ma’am.

Stevie Wayne: You’re just a voice on the phone.
Dan O’Bannon: And you’re just a voice on the radio. We’d make a perfect couple. You let me take you to dinner tonight, I’ll prove it to you.
Stevie Wayne: Sorry, Dan. My idea of perfection is a voice on the phone.

Dr. Phibes: What the hell happened out there?
Nick Castle: There was rust all over everything. It was like the boat had been out there a long time, taking on water. He was down below, near the bunks.
Dr. Phibes: Nick, his wounds are covered with algae, his lungs are full, and there’s silt in his fingernails. I tell ya, I saw Dick Baxter three days ago in Salinas. Now he’s lying there on the table looking like he’s been underwater for a month.

Kathy Williams: Are you going to give the benediction tonight, father?
Father Malone: Antonio Bay has a curse on it.
Sandy Fadel: Do we take that as a “no”?

Elizabeth Solley: Listen, I never hitchhiked before. I just really want to be careful. Can I ask you something?
Nick Castle: Sure
Elizabeth Solley: Are you weird?
Nick Castle: Yes, I am. Yes, I am weird.
Elizabeth Solley: You are weird. Thank God you’re weird. The last one was so normal, it was disgusting.

Stevie Wayne: Well, my gauges must be wrong. I’ve got a wind blowing due east. Now what kind of a fog blows against the wind?
Dan O’Bannon: You got me.
Stevie Wayne: I’m not so sure I want you.

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2 Comments

  1. John Carpenter admitted that his inspiration for the story was the British film The Trollenberg Terror which dealt with monsters hiding in the clouds

    The Trollenberg Terror may be better known to some of you by the alternate title The Crawling Eye, which was used in the cable debut of Mystery Science Theater 3000

  2. Pingback: Halloween III [retro review] | Mutant Reviewers From Hell

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