Fog, The (1980)

The Fog (1980)

When the fog rolls in… the terror begins!

Antonio Bay has just turned a hundred years old and is getting ready to celebrate its centennial year. But as the residents of the small, quaint harbour town begin to prepare for the festivities, a mysterious cloud of fog appears upon the shore and begins to make its way across town, leaving a trail of horrifying slaughter until the deathly, dark secrets of Antonio Bay’s blood-soaked history are finally revealed.

 

John Carpenter’s directorial follow-up from Halloween, The Fog is his much-overlooked classic. A traditional ghost story with a slight hint of the violence that the 80s was to embody, Carpenter was always going to be up against comparisons to his earlier masterpiece and does an admirable job of nearly getting away with it. It was a commercial success on release but not so much in the way of critical acclaim. Like much of Carpenter’s earlier work (I’m looking particularly at The Thing), it is only over time that the film has started to receive the praise it deserves.

With a production team virtually identical to those that worked with him on Halloween, Carpenter is able to replicate a lot of the feel of that film with The Fog. All of his trademark visuals are present here, including the gorgeously-shot anamorphic widescreen which makes Antonio Bay appear to one of the scariest places in the world. There’s the slow-burner approach which maintains a steady pace leading up to the more chaotic finale. Carpenter also scores the film and brings his own unique style of synth to add to the ambiance. It’s classic Carpenter from his most creative and fertile period as a director, with the focus on creepiness and unsettling his audience rather than going in for the obvious kill.

The star of the show has to be the fog itself. Carpenter shoots it in a way to give it a life and soul of its own, let alone the horrors that it hides within. Sticking a couple of strong lights inside a load of dry ice might not sound the greatest technique but it’s effective – check out the scenes with the fog slowly encroaching on the fishing vessel or shrouding the weather station in its deathly vapour and tell me that this isn’t scary. Cinematographer Dean Cundey deserves a lot of the credit for this as he works almost totally at night throughout the film and utilises a variety of lighting techniques to really sell this town as a spooky place. Constantly back-lighting the ghosts also increases the sinister presence – you never truly get a good look at them and they appear as silhouettes. Perhaps Carpenter relies a little too heavily on Cundey’s obvious skill at creating mood and doesn’t do as much with the story to further this on as he could have done.

See were The Fog really fails is with its story full of convenient twists and turns and poorly written characters, most of whom are paper-thin. There are too many characters for a start and a good two-thirds of them contribute little to nothing to the film. Apart from Adrienne Barbeau’s gusty DJ who spends most of the film on her own screaming into the radio, we don’t warm to any other of the main characters. Tom Atkins’ character is meant to the hero I’m guessing but he’s hardly the focus of the story. Jamie Lee Curtis has a lesser role as a hitchhiker who hooks up with Atkins’ character (it always made me laugh how easy it was for the older Atkins to get the young Curtis into the sack in the film) – I’m guessing she was cast for name value as her star was shining brightly after Halloween a few years earlier. The Fog marks the only occasion in which she starred alongside her mother, Janet Leigh (another genre veteran from Hitchcock’s classic Psycho). There are appearances from Nancy Loomis and Charles Cyphers, two other Carpenter regulars.

It isn’t just the characters who suffer from a script which needed more work. Whilst the overall story of spectral vengeance is time-and-tested, there’s not a lot else going on apart from that. I guess keeping it simple is relative to the film’s success but the script does throw in too many gimmicky events to try and keep this theme of undead retaliation going as long as possible: bodies that come alive in morgues; piece of driftwood which start gushing water; and all of the clocks and alarms in the town going crazy upon the stroke of midnight. The idea that the ghosts are back for revenge and to claim six lives also puts some restraints on the film’s later scenes. Once the body count has increased (and early scene does a pretty good job of getting that number up quickly), then you’ll be sat counting the numbers on your figures. It doesn’t mean to say that you know who will die, just how many more.

Despite Carpenter’s attempts to make a traditional chiller, his first edit required that he add more violence to the film to give it some punch. Hence the ghosts don’t just come back for revenge, they come back for brutal revenge. Fish hooks and knives are the implement of choice for this band of marauders and they do a quick and efficient job with their victims. The short, sharp bursts of sporadic violence do unsettle the deliberate pacing but actually work well to heighten the sense that these ghosts will stop at nothing to get what, and who, they want. The film isn’t very bloody but the aggressive and merciless nature of some of the deaths will make you think you’ve seen a lot more than you have.

The Fog was one of the first of the huge swathe of remakes that Hollywood has forced upon us since the mid-200s, but the less said about that awful abomination, the better.

 

A great atmosphere, some excellent chills, stunning visuals, nervy sounds and generally well-crafted approach make The Fog one of horror’s most under-appreciated gems. Not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination and it does have obvious issues but it’s one of a small breed of films which nails the mood and tone of chilling horror to perfection.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

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