There’s Something in the Fog!

First of all: I’m severely tempted to reference Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog” over and over again throughout this post. I just thought you should know this. The lack of puns on “little cat feet” is only because I’m a master of self-restraint. Second of all: Why in the name of zombies didn’t anyone force me to watch The Fog (1980) before last week??! It’s a brilliantly told, old-fashioned ghost story, with nary a structural missteps and a premium on likeable, intelligent characters. It may well be one of director John Carpenter’s 2-3 crowning achievements.

It’s also a very smart meta-horror movie, as it deals with the scary stories we tell ourselves, and how those interact with the other myths our lives are based on. (Cf. Bernard Rose’s Candyman [1992].) The coastal town of Antonio Bay, California is about to turn 100 years old, and the town elders, like Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) are planning a big celebration, complete with the unveiling of a commemorative statue. But there’s eerie doin’s a-transpiring, as the residents of Shelbyville would say, and a thick, glowing fog rolling in. Namely, the kind of thick, glowing fog that contains hook-and-sword-wielding ghosts out for blood…

But Carpenter makes this into so much more than your typical thriller about hook-wielding ghosts. Yes, the movie’s plot, with its build-and-release model of suspense, is rooted in the Hitchcock-influenced slasher formula that Carpenter had pioneered with Halloween. But The Fog‘s greatest priority is establishing Antonio Bay as a tangible place with an embattled community of diverse citizens, each of whom is affected by the town’s troubled nautical heritage. (Many of Carpenter’s films, including The Thing and Prince of Darkness, have claustrophobic premises based on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which Carpenter himself remade; The Fog bears a similar, but less obvious, debt.)

We’ve got Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), the drunken priest who discovers his ancestor’s secret-laden diary; Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), the DJ whose sultry voice stretches across the town, not unlike the fog itself; Nick Castle (Tom Atkins), an intrepid seaman who’s investigating the town’s mysteries; and Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), an itinerant artist who tags along with Nick. We spend the majority of the film getting to know these characters, learning about their relationships to Antonio Bay and to each other. Each of their stories is intercut, and each character gains new insights into the mystery that they must slowly piece together with the others’ help. It’s kind of like a small-town horror version of Nashville.

The terror of The Fog comes less from the occasional impalements, and more from the sense of dread as the fog bank approaches, determined to exact revenge for the sins of the fathers. The plot’s focus on old, scary stories, like the one that Father Malone accidentally uncovers, or the one told during the film’s prologue by guest star John Houseman, is what allows Carpenter to engage in some clever meta-commentary. This is a “cursed small town” story about cursed small town stories. It reminds me of a less mechanical, more ludic version of Jaws; it too is about civic responsibility, but with a greater curiosity about the directions a story can turn, and how viewers react to them.

Stevie’s son Andy, for example, lets his imagination run wild after he finds a piece of driftwood carved with the name of the ghost ship, the Elizabeth Dane. Andy’s enthusiasm here and throughout the film, as when he sees the danger he’s in and laughs, “I think it’s kinda neat!”, reflects our eagerness as audience members for the film’s approaching climax. Carpenter is a resolute classicist, devoted to retelling old stories in new, fun ways. Like his idol Hitchcock (whose film The Birds gets a shout-out when a character mentions Bodega Bay), he wants to tantalize and play with his audience. The Fog does an admirable job of giving its viewers the chills.

Of course, I have to touch on The Fog‘s Lovecraft connections: although Antonio Bay is on the west coast, the way Carpenter treats its haunted history resembles that of certain New England towns, Innsmouth among them, and Antonio Bay isn’t far from a spot called Arkham Reef. But The Fog is definitely less downbeat than most of Lovecraft, and espouses a worldview of qualified optimism through the fates of its characters: stick together and you’ll pull through, but somebody still has to pay (and with their life, not just a giant gold cross).

The Fog brings together all manner of horror legends under the auspices of solid writing, crafty editing, and Carpenter’s always reliable synthesizer score. It’s a movie that merges old and new in the mother/daughter pairing of Leigh and Curtis; in the confrontation between the town’s not-so-buried past and its living present; and in its telling of the oldest kind of horror story through the newest techniques. With its angry, shadow-shrouded ghosts, The Fog is a very scary movie, yet it’s also good-natured and thematically deep. It’s just the kind of entertainment we need as Halloween grows closer, sweeping across the calendar like a fluorescent cloud of fog.

Wait a minute, wait a minute, I’m not done yet! Well, OK, first: isn’t it cool how Adrienne Barbeau never physically interacts with any of the other characters? I love subtle tricks like that. Second and most importantly: totally by coincidence, I recently saw Barbeau and Holbrook in a movie together – that is, George Romero’s Creepshow. As a whole, I found it pretty uneven and only occasionally successful (note: Ed Harris used to be hot, and Leslie Nielsen makes a good psychopath); the Barbeau/Holbrook episode, “The Crate,” was probably the movie’s peak. (Either that or the last one, “They’re Creeping Up On You!”, where E.G. Marshall is plagued by some icky cockroaches.)

Barbeau and Holbrook play a dysfunctional couple living in academia. The story is pretty much Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets Monster on the Campus (with, as usual, a little Lovecraft thrown in), as Holbrook’s colleague pries open the titular object… and finds a very hungry, very toothed beastie inside. Can you guess who tries to use the monster to kill who? I’ll give you a hint: Holbrook is a hen-pecked, fed-up husband while Barbeau is his verbally abusive, drunken, uncensored wife. She gives a fantastic performance, by the way. So there! A little tangentially related bonus review to tide you over.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema

2 responses to “There’s Something in the Fog!

  1. Wow, references to Carl Sandburg AND Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE. Very cool. I really enjoyed this review and you nailed what makes this film so effective and why it works so well even after all these years.

    • Thanks a lot! Nashville is my gold standard for well-developed communities, so I was impressed to see The Fog aspiring to that level of complexity.

      And thanks for the blogathon! It was a great way to start out October.

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