Monday, October 31, 2016

1980 Week: The Fog

          Note: Settle in and enjoy a double-dose of 1980 titles for the next two weeks, beginning with a modern-classic horror picture just in time for Halloween . . .
          More than any other of the films he made during his peak period of the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, The Fog subsists on the special nocturnal vibe that only director John Carpenter could create. Filled with atmospheric shots of killers emerging from shadows, kicky effects depicting the influence of supernatural forces, and the pulsating rhythms of a great synthesizer score composed by Carpenter himself, The Fog is vibe personified. When the movie clicks, which happens a lot, the sheer mood of the thing is intoxicating. And every so often, the picture fulfills its raison d’etre by providing genuine scares. So even if the picture is ultimately quite disappointing, thanks to a anticlimactic ending and the failure to fully utilize a fantastic cast, The Fog is very much a part of the John Carpenter mythos. Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982) are scarier, and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape from New York (1981) are more exciting, but The Fog comprises 89 minutes of pure Carpenter style.
          Set in a small town on the California coast, the picture opens with a creepy vignette of crusty senior Mr. Machen (John Houseman) reading a ghost story to kids sitting around a campfire on the beach at night. It seems that an otherworldly fog once crept over the waters near the town of Antonio Bay, claiming the lives an entire ship’s crew—and legend has it that 100 years later, the fog is due to return. That time, of course, is now. Its creepy context established, the picture then gets down to the business of introducing various characters doomed to face the fog: radio DJ and single mom Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), who broadcasts out of a decrepit old lighthouse; easygoing local Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) and sexy hitchhiker Elizabeth Soiley (Jamie Lee Curtis), who become a couple while traveling together; uptight town official Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh); angst-ridden priest Father Malone (Hal Holbrook); and so on.
          Carpenter and cowriter-producer Debra Hill never quite figure out how to manage the sprawling cast, because even though tasty glimmers of backstory and characterization appear here and there, individualization gets lost when people are transformed into potential victims during elaborate fight scenes. Similarly, the mythology behind the fog and its connections to Antonio Bay is both frustratingly unclear and overly simplistic. As a result, The Fog is much more a collection of cool scenes than a properly constructed narrative. That said, cool scenes are the coin of the realm in horror cinema, and The Fog is full of darkly entertaining passages. The eerie assault on a fishing boat. The tense race to save a child from a house that’s being smothered by the fog. The final siege on the lighthouse.
          Abetted by his best cinematographer, master of darkness Dean Cudney, Carpenter generates one menacing image after another, and he punctuates the film with his signature sardonic wit. Barbeau is great, especially considering she performs so many scenes alone (nothwithstanding wraithlike attackers), and it’s fun to spot so many players from previous Carpenter films: Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Curtis, Darwin Jostin, Nancy Loomis. (Carpenter missed an opportunity by keeping real-life mother and daughter Leigh, of Pyscho fame, and Curtis mostly separate, but their appearance in the same film is notable in a Trivial Pursuit sort of way.) The Fog was remade in 2005 amid a rash of new versions of Carpenter classics, and the remake was a critical bomb despite scoring at the box office. 



Booksteve said...

One of the best openings of any movie ever! Totally sucked me in to watch the rest of the picture when I first discovered it on '80s cable.

Xteve said...

Carpenter also cameos early on, in a scene with Hal Holbrook.