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.
Opening the film proper with a campfire ghost story isn’t exactly original, but The Fog‘s take on the horror cliché sure does tingle the spine. John Houseman gives a memorable performance as an old ship captain telling a group of rapt children the notorious story of the town’s founding—a tale of piracy, pundering, and revenge. His pupils dilated with white intensity, Houseman enunciates each word with dire urgency as he clenches a pocket watch that jarringly snaps shut at the stroke of midnight. The captain’s story finished, the camera scans upward to the blackness of the night sky above and then cuts to the rocky promontories overhanging the sea, a foreshadowing of the amorphous terror that is soon to roll in.
Acoustic and visual effects presage the emergence of the fog’s ghoulish denizens. The timing of these effects is one of Carpenter’s principal strengths as a horror filmmaker. It all starts at the town’s church, where priest Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) drops his glass of red wine in startlement after a secret brick from the wall of his chamber comes crashing to his desk. This marks the beginning of a crescendo of unnatural phenomena as the minutes of the proverbial witching hour begin to tick down. Payphones spontaneously ring. Gas-station lights flicker on. Car horns sound. And a night-crew liquor store worker looks on with consternation as the bottles in his fridges begin to clink and clatter. It’s the sort of thing poltergeists do, and Carpenter’s execution is more unnerving and euphonious than anything Spielberg could have come up with.
This sort of atmospheric tension is the primary reason for the film’s success. God knows, acting or character doesn’t play much of a role. As in so many horror films, the reason for the plethora of underdeveloped characters is that, as Hitchcock might have said, they’re fodder for a concept. In this case, they function as a herd that bonds together against a common enemy, a theme that’s employed elsewhere in, say, Stephen King’s Storm of the Century or Rose Red.
Periodically, we hear the breezy voice of Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), a radio show DJ stationed at the town’s lighthouse. Her kick-back-and-relax on-air personality provides premature comic relief, an antithesis to the general disquietude established by Carpenter’s eerie, if rather repetitive, score. (Incidentally, the director came from a musical background.) Her tone may be one of anodyne assurance when we first hear it, but later on it will reflect maternal desperation as she admonishes the other townspeople to flee in the direction of the church because there’s “something in the fog.”
If the film has a central character, Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis, looking even more like a pre-pubescent boy than she had in Halloween) is probably it. She’s a hitchhiker just passing through town when she’s picked up by Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) in his truck. Her character resembles that of Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren) in Hitchcock’s The Birds: have loose moral standards, will travel. The fact that she ends up bedding down with Nick Castle at his house is the last nail in the town’s coffin, the final moral taint to stoke the fog.
Naturally, Carpenter has vociferously denied that The Fog is derivative of Hitchcock’s ideas, and “derivative” may indeed be too strong a condemnation. He pays homage to The Master’s props, pacing, and timing, but The Fog is original in its own right. Its antagonists—the shadowy figures that issue forth from the mist to do their murderous business—aren’t quite like any other creature I’ve seen in a horror film—a combination of the grim reaper and the fisherman-gone-bad from I Know What You Did Last Summer. And the way Carpenter silhouettes them against the light is haunting. Their glowing eyes, which he deliberately doesn’t reveal until the film is nearing completion, are another nice touch.
Comparisons with Hitchcock were probably inevitable, since Carpenter included Janet Leigh in his cast, best remembered for her role as Marion Crane in Psycho. In The Fog, Leigh, her wizened face now barely recognizable since that iconic performance a generation earlier, plays Kathy Williams, a rather bullish old dame who’s organizing the town’s centennial celebration. Like Elizabeth, Kathy is also helping to fuel the spirit of revenge against the town. As Father Malone reminds the others, “we’re celebrating murderers.” Unlike the psychotic Michael Myers in Halloween, the baddies in The Fog have a legitimate gripe: they were foully murdered by a group of townspeople, including Malone’s grandfather. Turns out the phantom leader used to be a guy named Blake, a rich man and ship owner with leprosy, and that Antonio Bay’s founding fathers had banded together to murder him and his fellow seafarers and rob him of his gold. Not to mention that they feared the prospect of a leper colony being established nearby. Poetic justice, then, that the mist is descending on the town like a plague and that the specters’ first victims are a group of fishermen at sea.
It’s far-fetched to be sure, but at least the backstory is more complex than the unidimensional serial-killer portraits of Halloween or most other zombie, vampire, and stalker clones that have flooded the horror-film market over the past decades. The Fog doesn’t overly pander to those drooling to see bodies being ripped open and heads being lopped off. There’s some of that too, but Carpenter doesn’t overly indulge in it, and when he does, he tends to suggest, cutting the scene right at the point of contact.
What ultimately makes The Fog such a thriller is its emphasis not on the heinousness of an individual act but on the ubiquity of evil—a mist that functions as the walls of a prison cell, trapping its victims inside. It’s a primally frightening concept that would later be imitated in the even more claustrophobic The Mist by Frank Darabont (which, though obviously derivative of its predecessor, is still a pretty good flick).
Do watch this film. But if you hear three loud knocks at your door in the middle of the night, please, please, don’t answer it.
Joe’s Grade: B+