I’m normally not much of a John Carpenter fan, finding Halloween an overtouted mediocrity of a film even by B-movie standards. Yet I think The Fog illustrates where its captain-obvious teen-slasher predecessor went wrong. For in this later film—whose lukewarm critical reception puzzles me—Carpenter recognizes that evil is most terrifying when its source is supernatural and uncertain. Establishing the atmosphere of foreboding are two lines from an Edgar Allan Poe poem with which the film begins: “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” As we watch, our fear grows in proportion to the mist that closes in upon the coastal Californian town of Antonio Bay. A vague, indeterminate anxiety increasingly suffocates each breath we exhale, not knowing when or what creatures will emerge from the green glow that emanates from within this brumous blanket.
It’s alive! An elegant declaration of mad-scientific achievement, that. Dr. Frankenstein’s (Colin Clive) terse interjection means more to horror-movie lore than all the chainsaw gorefests and Michael Myers clones that the slick John Carpenters in the “sequel industry” ever reinvented. Still, the original Frankenstein is a bit stiff and blockheaded at times and should probably best be known as the prequel to the magnificent Bride of Frankenstein, which is doubtless among the greatest horror movies ever made.
For all its technical wizardry (including meticulously crafted iris shots), eerie chiaroscuro effects (the shadow in the stairwell is indelibly etched in my memory), and virtuosic performances (particularly Max Schreck in the lead role of Count Orlok), Nosferatu fails to heat my blood or stimulate my mind to the extent that some other iconic, but probably less well-known, movies in the silent horror genre have, like the more subtle and cerebral The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (one of my favorite all-time films) or the metaphysical Swedish film The Phantom Carriage. Is Nosferatu a very good and wonderfully atmospheric film? Yes, I think that too is beyond doubt. It’s just that technique aside, it doesn’t seem to have all that much substance to it—you know, the sort of stuff that keeps you up at night pondering multiple levels of meaning. I’m not quite seeing the greatness of it.