Dir. John Carpenter (1980)
A mysterious fog is rolling into the town of Antonio Bay and bringing the sea's dead along with it.
The Fog is one of those movies that I feel sure I've seen at one time or another, but as I'm making an attempt to right my dire wrongs of having missed so much of Carpenter's filmography, I figured now was as good a time as any to make sure. The film actually has a lot in common with my favorite movie ever: Carpenter wrote (along with Debra Hill) and directed, Dean Cundey did the cinematography, and it's even starring Jamie Lee Curtis as Elizabeth, the young woman who is hitchhiking into the town of Antonio Bay on the eve of their centennial celebration. Unlike Halloween, however, The Fog is Carpenter's attempt at a ghost story, the timeless genre of horror that has resonated with audiences since our caveman ancestors first started telling scary stories around the campfire.
From the initial attack on The Seagrass in the harbor onwards, The Fog is an ultra-creepy tale of ghoulish creatures and original sin. Taking full advantage of silhouette and the fear that lurks in the darkness, Carpenter and Cundey continually craft shots that are wonderfully eerie and genuinely frightening. Many of the tricks that made Halloween so effective are repeated here: the use of blueish tinges to highlight the shadows, the hammering staccato score, Carpenter's decision to use Panavision cameras to make an erstwhile cheap indie flick look like a grade-A Hollywood production. And, of course, because it's created by two all-time geniuses, the film is even more effective than it perhaps otherwise would be.
The Fog also benefits greatly from an all-star cast. Curtis is joined by her mother Janet Leigh, Adrienne Barbeau, John Houseman, Tom Atkins, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, and Hal Holbrook. The makeup effects are done by Rob Bottin, the editing and production design by Tommy Lee Wallace... there are no parts of The Fog that aren't in the hands of the absolute best person for the job.
Ghost stories are, by their very nature, slow-moving. It's all about the buildup, the terror that is allowed to fester and grow as the things that go bump in the night inch ever closer to finally, mercifully coming out of their hiding places. When told by a novice, or someone without the vision to make such an unhurried story linger when it needs to, ghost stories cease to become scary because there simply isn't enough story to be scary throughout. Ghost stories require a mythos, a central conceit that either justifies their actions, like with the sympathetic specters of Edgar Allen Poe, or one that teaches a lesson, which can be as simple as the phantoms who visit Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. By mixing an excellent revenge story with some ghostly zombie goodness, Carpenter does a fantastic job of giving The Fog an intriguing tragedy while also providing enough backstory for the audience to empathize with the evil at the heart of the tale.
I'm generally not a fan of ghost stories, a consequence of that natural tendency to drag. It is, after all, exceedingly rare that it's pulled off well. Most ghost stories draw their interest from other aspects of the plot, whether it be gothic mansions filled with cobwebbed corners and ancient grandfather clocks or dewy-grassed cemeteries with moss-covered graves and recently unearthed tombs. I don't generally care about any of that: give me a good story or give me an exciting one or I don't particularly give a shit. Thankfully, The Fog does that, providing a tale of a town founded on a chilling crime and the vengeance that must be wrought because of it. While it would be easy to dismiss the fate of the film's characters as undeserved, sometimes, the sins of the fathers are, indeed, visited upon the sons. And that's exactly what's happening here.
The Fog is all about ambience, personifying the fog itself as a character in its own right. It's the harbinger of doom, the portent of nefarious things to come. The fog itself is able to wreak havoc, popping phone lines from their place and destroying power plants to plunge the city into darkness. As the ghosts proceed into the town to have their retribution, Carpenter embraces the atmospheric horror and makes a unique ghost story that has all the elements of a slasher film as well. The three-film horror stretch of Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing is the greatest of any horror director in history. While this one is the weakest of the three, the other two are among the best horror films ever made. It's a magnificent sophomore effort, and it's a genuinely excellent tale of ghostly revenge.
Who this movie is for: Supernatural horror fans, Ghost story stans, Brandy (such a fine girl)
Bottom line: One of the more watchable ghost stories ever made, The Fog is creepy, scary, and an excellent representation of Carpenter's ability to put all elements of a story on-screen. The actors are great, the effects, while minimal, are fantastic, and the score is trademark Carpenter, which is always a good thing. It's a chilling tale of revenge served ice cold, and it's a cult classic that is well deserving of the status. Despite taking place in April, the ambience is a perfect fit for October viewing.