The Films of John Carpenter: The Fog (1980)
Director John Carpenter has referred to The Fog, his 1980 horror film, as a “learning experience”. “We shot the movie I wrote”, Carpenter explains, “finished it with the music and everything…and it didn’t work. I saw the completed movie and it was terrible. I had a movie that didn’t work, and I knew it in my heart.” At that point, Carpenter went back to Avco-Embassy, the production company financing the picture, and told them that he needed to re-shoot, re-cut and re-score a movie they were hoping to release in three months time. It was a bold move, yet Carpenter and his crew worked long and hard over the next three months, transforming The Fog into something the director felt was much more feasible. The result? A film that works…a film that scares the hell out of you…and a movie that I enjoyed immensely.
Antonio Bay, a California coastal town, is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, but the planned festivities set to commemorate this centennial are threatened when the local priest, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), uncovers his grandfather’s diary, detailing the true circumstances under which the town was founded. Exactly 100 years earlier, six conspirators caused the deaths of a ship full of lepers by luring them towards the shoreline with a campfire, where their vessel broke apart on the rocks, killing everyone aboard. It seems that one of the victims on this ship was the town’s leading citizen, a wealthy man with no descendants who had contracted leprosy, and whose money was then used to construct, among other things, the local church that still stands to this day. However, guilty consciences aren’t the only things that the townsfolk of Antonio Bay have to worry about, for a thick, threatening fog has also descended upon the community, one suggesting that the spirits of the lepers have risen from the sea, and are seeking their vengeance on the town’s current residents.
Before I go any further, I must confess that I’ve always been a sucker for sea-faring stories, especially ones that center on shipwrecks (as a kid, I would look in marvel at the Sindia, a 19th century merchant ship that ran aground on the beaches of Ocean City, New Jersey in 1901, and the remains of which were visible until finally sinking into the sand forever in the mid 1990’s). Then, throw a ghost story on top of it, like Carpenter does with The Fog, and you got me hook, line and sinker. So understand, right off the bat, that my opinions on The Fog may be a bit biased. That said, however, I had one hell of a good time with this movie.
Carpenter did such an expert job at constructing the final film that all traces of the problems with the original cut have been eliminated entirely. In fact, the thrills and frights of The Fog get under way pretty quickly, immediately dragging viewers to the edge of their seat and keeping them there for the duration. The Fog opens with Mr. Machen (John Houseman) telling the story of the shipwreck to a group of kids around a campfire (one of Carpenter’s ‘added’ scenes), explaining how, every year at that time, the crew rises from the depths, seeking the light that lured them to their doom. This is an effective pre-title sequence, yet is just the beginning. Once the clock strikes midnight, the entire town starts to go haywire. Car alarms sound for no reason, dogs bark uncontrollably, lights dim, and convenience store shelves rattle, all this occurring before the opening credits have even finished! These very first scenes are jarring, unexpected, and ultimately very effectual.
…And then the fog rolls in, releasing the fury of hell on Antonio Bay, the details of which I will leave for you to discover on your own. Do yourself a favor and follow this piece of advice: watch John Carpenter’s The Fog as soon as you can.
The next film in my stroll down Carpenter lane is one I’ve been anticipating since the beginning of this series: Escape from New York, starring Kurt Russell. Look for it on Row Three in two weeks time.