John Carpenter’s tribute to campfire tales, initially a critical flop, is now a gold standard of tightly paced, bone-chilling horror.
I was probably ten or so the first time I heard a genuine, told around a campfire ghost story. As it turned out, I had read the story before, but it sounded more effective being told out loud, with all the appropriate pauses and the comfortable beat of silence before the final jump scare. The story was so simple, told in under ten minutes, and it left a bunch of middle schoolers flinching at every snapped twig and cricket chirp for the rest of the night.
John Carpenter’s The Fog, released forty years ago today, perfectly follows the campfire story structure: setup, slow but steady growing sense of dread and menace, misleading moment of all is well again, and then one last BOO! to ensure that the audience leaves the movie with the worst case of goosebumps they’ve ever had. Co-written with Carpenter’s frequent collaborator Debra Hill, while The Fog isn’t quite as effective as its predecessor Halloween, it shares the earlier film’s tight pacing and a villain (or, in this case, multiple villains) that always seems to be right behind you no matter how fast you run.
The movie actually opens with a campfire story, told by John Houseman, in a tone that’s perhaps more serious than a movie about vengeful leper ghosts deserves, but works to its benefit. The scene was added in by Carpenter in post-production, after he was dissatisfied with his original cut. Houseman essentially explains the entire plot of the movie in less than three minutes, and the fact that The Fog makes valuable use of every frame of its ninety minute run time is a minor miracle. There’s not an extra ounce of fat on it, and it doesn’t need any.
Events take place in Antonio Bay, California, a picturesque seaside town so small that one person runs the local weather station, and one person runs the radio station, and they spend most of their time flirting with each other over the phone. Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter’s wife at the time) is in charge of the radio station, and ultimately spends almost the entire movie trapped in a lighthouse, never interacting on screen with another (living) character except for a brief moment with her son near the beginning. There’s something nicely fairy tale-ish about that scenario, the princess in a tower who suddenly finds it surrounded by monsters demanding to be let in. In this case, however, there’s no prince riding to her rescue. Stevie is entirely on her own.
The fact that The Fog makes valuable use of every frame of its ninety minute run time is a minor miracle.
It’s Antonio Bay’s centennial, but that anniversary comes with a dark secret. Six of its founders, including the grandfather of town priest Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), forced a ship belonging to the wealthy but leprosy stricken Blake to run aground, destroying it and killing everyone on board. The ship was plundered and then everyone collectively decided that the time they murdered a bunch of lepers wasn’t a polite conversation at Kiwanis Club dinners and sewing bees. Blake and his sailing companions have returned seeking revenge, however, entering Antonio Bay in a rolling bank of thick, impenetrable fog.
That’s it, that’s the plot, a long night of townspeople trying to escape having to pay for the sin of their ancestors. It could be written out on a cocktail napkin, and yet it’s remarkably effective. All of the elements Carpenter does best are there – the sense of crushing isolation, the spare, chilly score (the particularly creepy track “Reel 9” is evocative of both a grandfather clock with its hands always set at midnight, and a fist insistently pounding on a door), and a single-minded, inescapable villain who wants, who knows nothing but death. The fact that, other than one or two glimpses, Blake and the other ghosts remain largely obscured by the fog, let alone that they seem to be everywhere at once, makes them particularly nightmarish figures. Fog is eerie enough on its own, but then your mind starts playing tricks on you and you think “Is that…no, that’s a street sign…but wait, do street signs have arms?!?”
If The Fog suffers anywhere, it’s in the same way that a lot of horror movies do, and that’s in the development and economy of its characters. Though publicity material would have you believe that Jamie Lee Curtis is the protagonist and Final Girl, it’s really Barbeau, and, refreshingly, save for poor Mrs. Kobritz, all the female characters make it to the end of the movie. Curtis, surprisingly, gets very little to do except scream every now and then, and remind the audience that they’re watching a movie made in 1980 when she’s picked up hitchhiking by Tom Atkins and in the very next scene they’re in bed together. Atkins is a capable but boring hero — it’s Holbrook as the conflicted Father Malone who really gives the story some depth and weight.
The kills are gruesome, yet, like Halloween, mostly bloodless. The Foley artist was having the time of his life, though, amping up the sound of flesh squishing and tearing. The Fog isn’t just a good introduction to the films of John Carpenter (whereas Prince of Darkness is advanced study level), it’s a good, if not underrated introduction to 80s horror in general. That closing shot, during which Father Malone foolishly ponders why his life was spared, is an all-timer, and it sticks with you. It’s like sitting around a campfire, and a cold hand drops on your shoulder from out of nowhere.