Friday, May 7, 2010

The Fog (1980)

The Fog was writer/director John Carpenter & writer/producer Debra Hill's follow-up to their incredibly successful 1978 movie Halloween. For this movie they decided on a complete change of pace, going for a spooky and completely non-violent ghost story. However, during post-production they decided that this approach was not successful and went back to add more violent scenes (as Carpenter would also later do with Halloween II). The result is a patchy movie with lots of great atmospheric scenes punctuated by violent climaxes.

For all its problems - and it has many - The Fog is one of my favourite horror movies. It starts with John Houseman telling a ghost story to some children, sitting around a camp fire. It has an excellent cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Nancy Loomis, Hal Hartley and Adrienne Barbeau. Most of the characters are named after people Carpenter had worked with on his earlier movies, like Dan O'Bannon and Tommy Lee Wallace.

Mostly because of those reshoots, the ghosts in The Fog are not content to loom menacingly and say "Boo!" They are armed with swords, hooks and other such weapons, and they clearly relish using them. They are also plenty gruesome to look at: they are supposed to be the spirits of drowned lepers, and they are decayed, green, maggot-ridden and generally disgusting. Makeup effects guru Rob Bottin (who later did his best work on another Carpenter movie, The Thing) does a great job here and also gets to play ghost leader Blake.

One of my all-time favourite horror movie setpieces comes early in the movie, when three drunken fishermen find themselves confronted with a ghostly galleon pulling up next to their boat. It's the scene where I think the atmospheric stuff and the violent stuff meshes best.

As with Halloween, the movie features female characters who were gutsier and more independent than was usual at the time, especially in genre movies. Together with Sigourney Weaver in Alien this helped to make American horror movies into a genre where a strong female lead was the rule rather than the exception, to the point where it was identified as a cliché known as the Final Girl (first named as such by Carol J. Clover in her fascinating book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film). Strong female leads are still rare in Hollywood, and horror movies are still a common exception.

John Carpenter provides the score himself, as he usually does in his own movies, and it's one of his best, based around a haunting piano melody. The photography by Dean Cundey (also a long-time associate of Carpenter) is excellent; I'd say that these are the two elements that most strongly contribute to the movie's success, though committed performances by the strong cast (especially Barbeau & Hartley) certainly help.

Barbeau is Carpenter's best heroine ever, a solo mum running a radio station and a lighthouse on her own and capably fending off both unwelcome suitors and marauding ghosts. Holbrook lends weight to what would otherwise be dull exposition scenes, his hushed tones turning them into spooky moments in their own right.

If you're not too worried by awkward shifts in tone and uneven plotting, I'd highly recommend The Fog. Just don't make the mistake of picking up the 2005 remake, which I was unable to get through without wanting to use the dvd as a frisbee (I lasted about fifteen minutes). Horrible, horrible stuff. Also, don't confuse it with James Herbert's novel of the same title, a full-strength gore-fest that has nothing in common with this movie.

There is a book of The Fog, which I've spent quite some time looking for. It's written by Dennis Etchison, one of the best horror writers of the last 50 years, and is apparently based on the earlier, pre-reshoot version of the movie. Etchison apparently managed to make the story tie up more neatly than the movie does, and this novelisation has a very high reputation. He has a gift for atmosphere and dread that seems to be perfect for this story.

Here's the trailer. I wanted to post the opening scene, where Houseman tells the story, but it's been taken down.

Guess I also need to put in an image so that I have a thumbnail for Facebook. Tempted as I am to use a sexy photo of Ms. Barbeau, I'm going for this one instead.


  1. So did you ever get the Etchison ppb? It's available quite cheaply here (lemme know if you want). I think I was too old when this came out to be swayed by the creepy parts because I was too creeped out by Tom Atkins getting it on with Jamie Lee (shudder). But it is fun -- makes me miss Debra Hill all the more.