Skip to main content

Get inside and lock your doors. Close your windows. There's something in the fog.

The Fog
(1980)

(SPOILERS) The Fog has its fans, but I tend to concur with Carpenter’s acknowledgement of the movie’s issues; it represents his first serious stumble, lacking both the sure, driving pace of his previous horror classic and its sense of humour (despite a surfeit of in-jokes, mostly on the character name front). It’s a short movie, but one that never really hits its stride. What The Fog undoubtedly has going for it is superb, highly memorable and evocative photography from Dean Cundey (it’s no coincidence that, when he stopped working with the director, the latter’s days delivering the goods were numbered) and a memorable cast. Although, in the latter regard, it’s telling that there are far fewer distinguished players in the much more effective, structural near-remake of the overtly Lovecraftian Prince of Darkness seven years later.


The Fog opens with considerable panache, however. Following a title card quoting Poe (“Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”), John Houseman delivers a classic “It was a cold and stormy night” tale, scaring the bejesus out of a bunch of kids with a tale of the undead crew of clipper ship the Elizabeth Dane, and how, “when the fog returns, they search for the campfire that led to their icy death”. 


It was one of a number of scenes added during reshoots, as Carpenter was extremely unhappy with the initial cut (the quote came from Deborah Hill, a Poe fan, the fog itself from a trip they took to Stonehenge when the stuff rolled in, and the grue from Carpenter’s affection for EC Comics). Having decided “This doesn’t work” he added more “mood, fear”, ghosts and several extra shock sequences, including Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the morgue with the resurrected corpse and Stevie (Adrienne Barbeau) on the roof of the lighthouse being menaced by maggoty mariners.

 

There are definitely some uber-cheesy jump scares in the picture, but the biggest problem is that Carpenter fails to imbue a sense of building dread. Individual scenes ascribe an appropriate air of ancient evil returning, such as Hal Holbrook’s Father Malone (originally earmarked for an unavailable Christopher Lee) discovering his grandfather’s diary in the church and its confession of terrible crimes against the crew of the Dane (Doctor Who’s The Curse of Fenric would plunder a number of elements from Carpenter’s film, not least the discovery of an important piece of the puzzle in a church wall), but there are long stretches were the anticipation of climactic events fails to weave a spell (it isn’t clear to me exactly why Malone tells Janet Leigh’s mayor Kathy Williams about his find, other than he wants to tell someone, and despite her lofty position, she’s ultimately a rather redundant character).


As with Jaws, there are requisite starters before the main course (the crew of a trawler are butchered by Blake and his men). Supernatural portents appear (Stevie, the local DJ, hears admonitions of revenge and sees “6 must die” on a piece of driftwood – one wonders if Carpenter was inspired by The Warriors in having her running commentary/ broadcast on events). And the fog rolls in.


The biggest star of a John Carpenter film is John Carpenter, hence his name before the title. Or is it? The biggest star of The Fog is actually Dean Cundey. Carpenter selects the anamorphic format and favours the steadicam, but it’s Cundey’s photography that ensures the picture lingers in the memory. Any shot featuring the inexorable fog is an instant keeper, but it’s with the crew of the Elizabeth Dane that the DP really comes into his own: backlit figures with glowing eyes, hooks at the ready – if the movie was as good as its publicity shots, it would be an all-timer. The shot of Blake in the church at the climax is a masterpiece (effects supremo Rob Bottin played Blake, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the following year’s Snake Plissken, given the hair). While Cundey went on to work with both Zemeckis and Spielberg, it’s safe to say that neither he nor Carpenter were ever quite as effective after they split.


Another issue with The Fog, despite its slender running time, is focus; Carpenter and producer Debra Hill (they co-wrote the screenplay) know where they want to get to, but this requires a lot of wheel spinning en route. Barbeau succeeds in convincing you that she's making the right choice spreading the word to the townsfolk rather than going after her son, but the picture would lose nothing at all by excluding Curtis (she doesn’t even get screen time, or scream time, with her mum), who was so fundamental to Halloween, and would probably gain a bit of credibility, since no sooner has Elizabeth thumbed a lift from Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) than she’s in the sack with a guy twice her age. One wonders if Castle was the part offered to Kurt Russell; he at least wouldn’t have seemed slightly creepy. Atkins bears resemblance a rather dull version of Nick Nolte (there was a certain look of bland leading men with mullets around that time, see also Christopher Stone in The Howling), and Carpenter missed a trick by failing to pull a gender reversal of Psycho and slaughtering him at the end of the opening act.


As far as tricks go, Blake’s decision not to kill Father Malone in the church makes no more sense for Malone pondering aloud why he didn’t. The answer’s obvious, of course – so Carpenter can produce a shock ending out of his hat (although, by this point, he and Brian De Palma had collectively managed to make the cliffhanger twist the new norm). It was a mistake to add shots of the wormy faces in the rooftop attack on Stevie (along with the impalements, influenced by the more graphic trend of the likes of Cronenberg’s Scanners). Without them, the force is much more elusive and impressive. Nevertheless, while The Fog doesn’t have terribly good characters, or plot, and even the score is more The Exorcist than typical Carpenter, it does come armed with a clutch of decent tropes. You can go a long way with a clutch of tropes.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave (1985) (SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave . But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

You cut my head off a couple of dozen times.

Boss Level (2021) (SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level . I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef