The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

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This guest review comes courtesy of critic Jaime Grijalba.

John Carpenter seems to be the most prominent living horror director, even if he hasn’t made a film since 2010. His presence in the modern landscape of the genre is mostly due to his legacy, and the permanent mark he’s left behind with his films, from classics like Halloween, which defined the slasher genre, to cult films that have marked generations like They Liveand Big Trouble in Little China. His presence is unavoidable on the landscape of horror to this day, from his constant touring in support of his fascinating musical abilities, to his more active association with films associated with his brand, like the new Halloween, a continuation of the original, directed by David Gordon Green, for which he served as executive producer and score composer.

Although his fourth theatrical outing, The Fog, was commercially successful (more due to the very low budget it had), it was far from being critically well-received at the time, and even if it warranted a lackluster remake in 2005, it still remained one of the least discussed films in Carpenter’s filmography until recently. Now, thanks to a restoration done by Studiocanal in 4K and a re-release through Rialto Pictures, there’s a way to re-experience or enjoy for the first time on a big screen the Lovecraft-inspired and Stephen King-flavored horrors that are still completely owned by Carpenter.

The film opens, fittingly, with an old man telling kids some ghost stories, which fits the overall tone of the film, which follows the events of the 100th anniversary of Antonio Bay, a coastal town in California. In the same way as the old man tells these old tales, we are introduced to a voice that seems to narrate the life of the town, DJ Stevie Wayne (played by Adrienne Barbeau), who has a radio station at the lighthouse that she also commands. Her tone, verging on eroticism while at the same time assured of her position of power (she’s “above” the town, as she’s on the lighthouse, and at the same time separated from it), accompanies various characters that will eventually come together under the threat of the fog.

And it’s the DJ, from her vantage point, who is the first to see the threat of the fog, as it approaches a nearby ship, just as midnight strikes. Through clever parallel editing, all of it linked through her voice, we see many supernatural events happen around the town, from the discovery of an old diary written by one of the original settlers of Antonio Bay, to the shattering of all the windows on a truck, all of which builds up to showing what’s behind the bright fog that envelops the coast: vengeful ghosts that a hundred years ago were killed by the founders of the town, and not only that, were robbed from the gold they carried on their ship, which eventually was used to build the church and the rest of the structure of the village.

So, the film becomes more an exploration on the subject of moral living, which resonated with me in ways that I wouldn’t suspect. What’s our responsibility to our ancestors, colonizers who killed or displaced people that originally lived there? Is there any moral dwelling possible in colonized territory? Now, of course, in the story of The Fog, the vengeful ghosts weren’t actually living in the territory of Antonio Bay, but it’s as if it were the cause. We see the next night a massive event in which the founders are honored on the 100th anniversary, and knowing what we already know, we can feel the rage of these ghosts as they maim and kill and gut people, maybe not strictly related to the founders, but it’s their way of exacting revenge on a town that doesn’t know on which crimes it was founded, and even celebrates those who committed the murders.

Visually, the film is a treat, and even with the low budget it manages to create a chilling atmosphere that goes beyond the idea of just pumping lots of fog onto exteriors and interiors. There’s a blue tone that, I assume, the new restoration will hinge on to bring forward the spooky imagery of the shadowy figures that in a brute manner slit throats, decapitate heads and dismember bodies. Much like in Halloween, Carpenter conjures a sense of dread out of the emptiness of the frame, devoid of human figures–we often just see empty streets, houses and the church from outside, slowly being surrounded by the bright fog, just as we see the sea, flowing, coming and going. We only hear the tones of Carpenter’s magnificent score, as if it were the fog itself, creeping into the frame, slowly building toward the final confrontation.

What one appreciates more about a film like The Fog is that although it is only 85 minutes long, it seems to live beyond the opening crawl and its final frame, the town exists beyond this horrifying event, and what helps build that is a sense of place, which is built through the landscape shots as well as the assured nature of the performances, where we seem to know everyone from the moment they open their mouths and that’s because they know each other beforehand. The only progression the film has, as it barely even has what one could call a character arc, is with the two characters that meet each other on the midnight of the anniversary, played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins.

Beyond their travels, in which they first find each other (him, a truck driver, her, a hitchhiker looking for a ride) and then find out what’s happening in the town, the film is pretty much free-form, as it seems to be made out of patches of lived life in town, a special day that is, but one that is given its sense of normalcy through the voice of the DJ that keeps on commenting through the night, through the attacks and even is confronted with the ghosts themselves as she is both at a point where she can give information to others, but at the same time is alone and isolated, incapable of defending herself. It’s that lived-in quality what gives the supernatural a child-like wonder that makes it one of the most fascinating horror films of the 1980s.

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

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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.