Writers - John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Stars - Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh
Many decades ago, I had a friend who wasn’t into horror, and the genre baffled him and made him afeared by its very reputation (every horror fan has a friend like that), but he was willing to try one out to see what the fuss was all about. You know: “Scare me." So I recommended John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, because that had always scared the jumping beans out of me as a youth. But he just thought it was silly. Even as a late teen, I knew there was a relationship between horror and the absurd that I knew some couldn’t take seriously at all, but I knew ‘The Fog’ would always be a favourite cinematic ghost story of mine.
I hadn’t seen it in a decade at least, although I had seen enough times as a youth already to know all the beats. Even so, it still made me jump twice, much to my surprise (I had forgotten a couple of jolts). It still worked. I was drawn to buy the restoration blu-ray because I knew it would look beautiful when all spruced up. Those coastline shots and the fog rolling in are forever imprinted in my mind.
Early Carpenter is the exemplar of stripped-down genre, even to, and especially because of, the unforgettable economic scores. Carpenter synth score homages are rife throughout the genre right now. It’s contemporary genre filmmakers paying homage to and trying to recreate the genre thrills of their childhood. ‘The Fog’ seems to be the underdog of Carpenter’s early streak, but all the stylistic treats that distinguished him for me as a young audience are all here. The use of widescreen and empty space, the notable framing, the scares, the score, etc. Even the slow pan from Adrienne Barbeau getting out of her car and going to walk down the long steps to the lighthouse felt distinctively Carpenteresque, the way it’s deliberately paced and all-encompassing. It occurs to me that Carpenter was, after Sergio Leone, the second time I was aware of a director’s style, that there was a person’s intent behind how the film looked, acted and sounded; that he was a brand, if you will.
Watching it again after so long, I am struck again by the
streamlining of both aesthetic and narrative. Having just seen Jamie Lee Curtis
in ‘Terror Train’, it is obvious how her natural intelligence and warmth
bring to life and down-to-earth potentially shallow characters, and no wonder
she was/is a favourite. The film is notable for its concentration on the female leads (in fact, the men are mostly secondary). It's an ensemble piece in which some characters don't meet one another: it's about scaring scattered characters, going someway to showing the fog's scope.
How bold to have one of its great set pieces where the town goes crazy at midnight run through ominously under the credits. And, of course, there the iconic campfire opening. “Just one more story… before midnight…” (snap!). Perhaps it’s just a scrapbook of various creepy happenings, but each set-piece is memorable.
The ghostly knocks on doors are the immortal scares of timeless classics (not least ‘The Monkey’s Paw’). A washed-up coin found on the beach becomes a plank of wood; a wall explodes to reveal a hidden journal: the randomness of supernatural threats where anything is possible. Barbeau trapped on top of the lighthouse, the blade clanking over the edge of the ladder, is still frightening. But all of this infused with a definite Seventies nastiness: the eye puncturing.
And it’s this last edge that stops it falling totally into old school regal Gothic. And if there’s anything new, its perhaps it this meshing of old and new genre sensibilities: a ghost story told in a contemporary, slasher style. But this might be absorbed as reductive for some. As Alan Jones writes, “Carpenter also relies heavily on cheap scare tactics (supernatural mists and people jumping out of the dark) rather than subtle suspense, but some sequences do turn the tension dial up quite high.”, and in this way it’s a precursor towards the James Wan school of horror. But Carpenter never condescends and this may well be the most “unpretentious” film of his early career, being just a fun ride of a homicidal ghost story.
Of course, beneath it all is the sordid tale of American past, bound up by religion and greed in the gold cross. The town happily whitewashes its wretched beginnings and consigns it to spook stories for kids.
‘The Fog’ remains highly enjoyable and still capable of scaring in that old fireside manner.