There’s something fitting about the new restoration of John Carpenter’s The Fog rolling onto Seattle screens the day after Halloween. Everything about it is just a little off the beat, a little bit odd. Which is, of course, what makes it, almost 40 years after its release, continue to be one of his better works. It lingers in the back of your brain, long after its brief running time has elapsed. Clocking in at a mere 89 minutes, and taking place over a single 24 hour period in the life of a small coastal community, The Fog is the leanest work of modern Hollywood’s most efficient great director (one of the many qualities that links him to Howard Hawks).
It begins at a campfire, with a village elder (John Houseman in old-timey fisherman drag) telling the story of the tragedy that accompanied the village’s founding exactly one hundred years earlier. Quickly we will learn the truth behind the legend, that the ship that tragically crashed in the fog one night was lured there intentionally, part of a scheme by the great men of the town to steal gold from a rich leper and his diseased companions: they murdered them and built their town atop their ruins. One hundred years later, the dead men return to balance the karmic scale.
Arrayed against the forces of darkness are Jamie Lee Curtis (a hitchhiker passing through town), the solid blond guy she hooks up with, Janet Leigh (wife of a fisherman and leader of the town’s anniversary festivities), Adrienne Barbeau (single mom from Chicago and operator of the town’s radio station/lighthouse) and Hal Holbrook (drunken priest whose grandfather was integral in the murders and whose diary tells the whole secret). They’re all pretty quick to figure out what is happening, though each of them has only a piece of the puzzle. The fog itself, what with its eerie glow and hidden frozen sailors, is pretty obviously the danger.
It’s a simple story built out of small, perfectly crafted suspense sequences. And while a lot of the horror movies of the era, including Carpenter’s own Halloween, seem to be designed in response to second wave feminism and The Pill, with their Final Girls surviving while their more promiscuous friends get the knife, The Fog is part of another strand of New Hollywood horror, one inspired more by the crises of the 1960s (the Vietnam War and its attendant atrocities in particular) and a kind of generational awakening to the sins of America’s past. Nightmare on Elm Street about a suburban lynching, Poltergeist about building suburbia on the graves of our ancestors, and so on. The Fog equates the foundation of the American community with the literal theft of capital, a town built on blood money. But then Carpenter complicates it further. In the film’s final moments, the priest reads the next few pages of his grandfather’s diary and finds out that the conspirators were actually betrayed: they never even got the money they were trying to steal. Their murder was ultimately pointless, their conspiracy undermined from within. But they founded the town anyway. That’s America for you: immoral, cruel, murderous, hypocritical, and totally incompetent.