There’s certain things in our lives we hold dear because we experienced them when we were young. Maybe a certain food or a song. Maybe it’s an old bomber jacket we were given on some nondescript Christmas morning when we were 7-years old. Maybe a special time with a loved one on a holiday when we were 10. For me, all of those things apply. My mom’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes, Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner”, a leather bomber jacket I got for Christmas when I was 15-years old, and a Memorial Day picnic with my grandma and grandpa Hubner at Ox Bow Park when I was 5. All of these things I will carry with me as long as the synapses are popping off in my head. Regardless of how significant or insignificant they may seem to the person outside looking in, for me they’re things that will always stay with me.
Same could be said for movies we saw in our childhood. There were certain films I saw as a kid that have stayed with me. Movies that I can’t necessarily say they’re great movies, but they moved me regardless. Audrey Rose, Phantasm, The Neverending Story, and The Road Warrior were movies I saw growing up that had a profound effect on a adolescent JHubner73. Of those movies, I still rank Phantasm and The Road Warrior up there, while the others not so much. John Carpenter’s The Fog is another movie I remember watching a few times when it was shown on network television that put me in a very specific place. It was scary, for sure, but it also had a very specific look to it. There was this overwhelming feeling of isolation in the scenes with Adrienne Barbeau in the lighthouse radio station, or with her son on the beach finding the driftwood. The drive Barbeau took to get to the lighthouse felt endless and almost magical. All these things stayed with me as a kid and the movie became this pinnacle of scary movies for me. Every time it was on TV I grabbed a blanket and a pillow and camped out on the living room couch. I wanted to be scared. I wanted to be transported to Antonio Bay for two hours. It’s a film that worked its magic on me when I was young. As an adult the soundtrack has become one of my favorite scores to get lost in. It evokes in me all those feelings I had as a kid bundled up on the couch waiting for a commercial break so I could go get a bowl of ice cream or go to the bathroom.
One thing I hadn’t done in years was sit down and actually watch the movie again. I recently picked up a limited edition 3-pack of Carpenter’s The Fog, Escape From New York, and They Live in steelbook case Blu Rays through Shout! Factory. Friday night my son and I popped in The Fog as he hadn’t yet seen it and I watched the film that sort of defined for me what great horror is supposed to be.
For the most part, my memory served me correctly.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the Cliff Notes version:
The scenic ocean town of Antonio Bay is celebrating their 100th anniversary. The night before the celebration things go crazy in town; car alarms go off, dogs start barking towards the ocean, windows and clocks shatter, and out in the ocean three drunk fishermen are slaughtered by beings that appear out of a glowing, ominous fog. That same night the local alcoholic priest finds a hidden journal in the wall of the church that was written by his grandfather who was one of the founding fathers of the town. It seems the town was founded on lies, deceit, and murder. Back in 1879, a colony of lepers approach the small village now known as Antonio Bay and ask if they can settle and form a town just a few miles from the village. They offer gold as payment for this proposition. 6 conspirators, including the priest’s grandfather, decide to doublecross the lepers by leading their boat at night right into a bank of rocks which sinks their ship and kills all the men on board. The conspirators then retrieve the gold from the wreckage and with it founded their town, Antonio Bay. On the town’s 100th Anniversary the leper pirates have returned and want revenge. 6 must die in place of the original conspirators, plus they want their gold back.
As a kid I loved this movie for the scares and creepy glowing fog. As an adult I find myself more mesmerized by the beautiful shots and Carpenter’s keen eye for forming scenes. The story isn’t complicated. This is basically The Blob, but with fog instead of a giant, man-eating ball of snot. In anyone’s lesser hands this would’ve been a movie that the sands of time would’ve devoured and spit out like so many other B-movies of the day. Carpenter made this with a$1,000,000 budget. With screw ups and re-shoots it ended up being closer to $1.1 to $1.3 million. Still, that’s peanuts in the scheme of things. His decision to shoot in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen made his low budget horror flick look more like an arthouse film. It’s simply gorgeous. There’s some truly effective acting here, as well as some not-so effective. Let me go over the good and meh.
First the good:
Like I said, this film is gorgeous. With Shout! Factory’s clean up of the print the film looks as good as ever. Carpenter is a visual guy more than a storytelling guy. He tells stories, but they’re simple ones. His strength is in putting scenes together and building tension, as well as his keen eye with the camera. Along with cinematographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter takes a little horror flick and gives it serious class in the looks department. His steadi-cam work, his use of light, and long, slow pans all feel revelatory in the field of horror. This film gave the horror genre a serious kick in the pants. It didn’t have to be grainy, choppily edited, and dubbed like a Godzilla picture in order to be a horror film.
The music is completely next level for horror films, or really any kind of genre. Carpenter used the synths for melodic dread creating and also to amp up intense scenes of terror. I think this is one score that stayed with me through my entire life. I always thought back to this music(even more so than his Halloween score) when I thought of great scores. When I started collecting film scores this was one of the first I wanted. Fortunately I waited a couple years till the Silva Screen reissue came out back in 2015. It’s gorgeous and sounds stunning.
There are individual moments of genius here. The opening sequence with John Houseman as the crusty sailor telling the tale of Blake and his comrades dying in the sinking ship to a bunch of kids around a campfire is classic. It sets the stage for what’s to come. And then the move from there into the town where lights flicker, windows explode, and things just get generally strange is exceptional. Carpenter’s use of light and his gorgeous widescreen shots go a long way to making this a classic. For me the scenes with Adrienne Barbeau’s radio station owner/DJ in the lighthouse radio station are some of the best. Her drive through the California countryside to the radio station located on a lighthouse cliff is just stunning. Walking down the long, narrow concrete stairs to the lighthouse is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Even hearing the repeating promos of KAB-radio is poignant. You get this overwhelming sense of isolation. And her play-by-play reports from the radio station to the town regarding where the fog is heading is tense as hell. Besides the fog itself, this is Adrienne Barbeau’s movie for sure.
The fog itself is ominous and creepy. This is a point that could’ve sunk the film had it not been done right and Carpenter and his effects crew did an amazing job here. There are three main players here: Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook, and the fog itself. These three are what push the movie forward. There’s plenty of characters, but they are all here in order to react to the actions of these forces of nature.
Blake and his leper ghost pirates are done right. You see enough to know you wouldn’t want to run into them on your morning commute, but not enough of them to see this is a movie with a $1 million budget. The ghost ship is effective as it silently moves along the drunk fisherman’s vessel. And the scene at the end in the church with Holbrook is intense as hell, glowing eyes and all.
And now, the not-so good:
Honestly, there isn’t much I can complain about here. But watching it 35 years on from the first time I saw there were just a couple things that bothered me. For one, some of the characters just didn’t seem fleshed out enough. The Tom Atkins/Nick Castle and Jamie Lee Curtis/Elizabeth Solley characters, while serving a definite purpose here(they’re a pivotal part in one of the most intense scenes in the film) just don’t seem all that interesting. Curtis was amazing in Carpenter’s Halloween as Laurie Strode, basically defining the female heroine in that role. But here, her easy hitchhiker just feels like any other character in the background. Tom Atkins seems like Tom Atkins in every role he’s in. Here he’s fine, but him hooking up with the MUCH younger Curtis(he’s 23 years older) seems more creepy to me now than it did when I was younger. They both serve the film well, but in as simple a way as they can(Atkins played the angry, abusive dad in Creepshow wonderfully, btw.)
Elsewhere Hal Holbrook does the stereotypical alcoholic priest as well as he can(he does resemble Edgar Allen Poe quite a bit.) The local townies all show up in fine form, but nothing really makes me care whether or not the Fog gets ’em or not.
The Fog isn’t any one person’s movie. It’s an ensemble built to serve us some existential dread in the form of a glowing fog that hides inside of it regret, guilt, lies, deceit, and stone-cold revenge(as well as some pissed off leper pirates from beyond the grave.) This is an old-timey campfire ghost story, much like the one we see transpiring at the very beginning of the film. It’s a lesson in “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but done up in a nightmare-ish fable by the sea. John Carpenter put a unique spin on a story about ghosts, revenge, comeuppance, and where greed will get you. He made one of the most gorgeous, midnight b-movies ever made.
38 years on, this fog still glows brightly.