THE FOG (1980)
If you’ve ever spent time by the sea you’ll be familiar with the tranquil vibe that hangs in the air. The pace of life in seaside towns is slower than most urban environments, the fresh sea air both invigorating and relaxing, the bustle of people coming and going greatly reduced by having one side of the town bordered by the sea. A battering by Mother Nature delivers a feeling of comfortable insignificance, time and weather washing by them as it always has done. Leave it then to horror maestro John Carpenter to throw a spanner into the works of the coastal fantasy. Life by the ocean in Carpenter’s world isn’t lazy days on the beach, its isolation by expanse, eerie sea mist, and the horrors that lurk within.
Following up on one of the most successful horror movies of all time would be a tough task for even the most seasoned of directors. Being one of John Carpenter’s first films, Halloween (1978) was both a blessing and a curse. Success opened many doors but also carried a weight of expectation. Taking a step back from the big screen Carpenter decided to hone his craft with a number of television projects, Elvis (1979), his first work with life-long friend Kurt Russell, and the tight thriller Someone’s Watching Me (1978) with Adrienne Barbeau, the soon-to-be Mrs Carpenter.
After this silver screen hiatus Carpenter felt primed to tackle a follow-up to Halloween. The flood of cheap slasher movies that poured out from Hollywood in Halloween’s wake pointed to a sequel to Michael Myers’s Haddonfield exploits. This would have been the studio’s ideal situation with slice and dice pictures such as Friday The 13th (1980) and Prom Night (1980) raking in mountains of box-office dollars; another outing for Myers would no doubt produce similar returns. But Carpenter believed a second Halloween would be too easy an answer to the question of his next picture, eventually limiting his involvement in the sequel to writing the story (which he later admitted to knocking up with indifference over a few beers one evening).
Choosing once again to work with co-writer and producer Debra Hill, Carpenter had a spark of inspiration at Stone Henge during a trip to the UK. Whilst admiring the rock pile Carpenter noticed what looked like a ‘pulsating fog bank’ a short distance away from the Henge. The director commented to Hill what a frightening prospect it would be if there was something lurking in the mist. From this off-the-cuff comment the idea of The Fog (1980) was born, a malevolent force contained in a mysterious fog that moved with a life of its own.
Carpenter proposed a coastal setting after recalling an historical extract he once happened across concerning a ship ferrying supplies of gold to the California coast in the 18th Century. When seeking to put ashore the Captain spotted the lights of a port town on the horizon. Unbeknownst to the crew the lights were actually bonfires set up on the beach by the locals, seeking to draw in unwary ships. The ship and its valuable cargo followed the bonfires to land and crashed upon the rocky shore. The locals then set about scavenging the treasure left behind in the wreckage. Utilising this historic record as a basis Hill and Carpenter conjured up a revenge driven story of spirits contained in the titular fog, hell-bent on gaining vengeance for their imposed watery grave.
Hill herself was a fan of classic horror literature and in particular the tales of Edgar Allen Poe. As such The Fog has a distinctly Poe-esque vibe in its story of restitution for a past crime. There’s even an intriguing Poe quote in front of the film’s opening credits to signify what sort of terrors await the viewer. The fictional setting for the film was Antonio Bay, though its exact location is not clearly established. There we meet a number of its occupants, most notably Stevie Wayne, the late night DJ for the towns KAB radio station, the base for it conveniently located in a lighthouse that overlooks the bay itself. We are also introduced to the town’s church minister, Father Malone through which the film’s raison d’être flows.
Malone finds an old diary entombed in the walls of his church that tells of a meeting called to discuss a ship due for port in Antonio Bay. The ship carries lepers that are to be housed in a colony near the town. The town members, fearing the leper colony, destroy the ship and its passengers by luring them onto the rocks off of Antonio Bay. The gold that was also on the ship is salvaged by the perpetrators and hidden in the church. The hundred year anniversary of the founding of Antonio Bay is the day chosen by the now ghostly occupants of the vessel to take revenge on the town. Under the cover of sea fog they creep on to land to claim the lives they deem necessary for restitution. The remaining characters that come our way are various inhabitants of the Bay who get caught up in the foggy goings-on, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) and his hitch-hiker friend Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), the town’s mayor Kathy Williams (Vivien Leigh) and her assistant Sandy (Nancy Kyes), Stevie Wayne’s son Andy (Ty Mitchell) and his nanny Mrs. Kobritz (Regina Waldon).
For horror fans there’s not a great deal on offer in the way of maritime ghost tales. Despite the tailor-made setting, the isolation of the coast and the mystery of the sea, it remains an untapped source. Whilst a number of British productions have capitalised on coastal frights, such as A Warning to the Curious from A Ghost Story for Christmas and the M R James adaptation Whistle And I’ll Come To You, it’s a rich seam Hollywood has yet to mine. But even though The Fog has this niche pretty much to itself it would still take a superb film to remove it from the top spot in this horror sub-genre.
The central conceit is acknowledged by the viewer the minute they sit down with their bowl of popcorn, the fog itself. In any other film such judicious overuse of the dry-ice machine would cause much hilarity, but here its mandatory, with misty mishaps and fog induced groping not only expected but welcomed. The fog is the central villain and not just a cliché piece of set dressing, and Carpenter was free to pour on as much as he liked without fear of reprimand. Its origin appears ordinary enough as we first come across the fog out to sea, taking hold of a local fishing vessel. But it is the subtle revelation that the fog is moving against the wind that kick starts the jitters. As the film progresses the mist moves in to completely submerge the bay. So complete is the foggy smothering, it was essential that Carpenter get this vital aspect of the film right. The director and his crew excelled themselves creating some amazing misty vistas.
There is a primitive fear connected to smoke and fog. It cloaks the cemeteries and castles of our nightmares, cuts off our primary senses, and provides villains with the perfect cover. In this respect Carpenter worked scary wonders with the mere use of a door crack and a well placed fog machine. Witness the fog fingering around the Wayne household and under Andy’s bedroom door. The fog also carries no sound allowing for maximum use of another classic Carpenter produced soundtrack. There’s a creeping subtleness to the threat that makes it all the more eerie, ‘What kind of fog blows against the wind?’. This creepiness also carries through to the victims to, moving away from the era’s predilection for messy slice and dice towards something much more weird and ominous, ‘I tell ya, I saw Dick Baxter three days ago in Salinas. Now he's lying there on the table looking like he's been underwater for a month’.
The fog by itself on a dark night would be impossible to photograph so Carpenter and photographer Dean Cundy added an ominous blue-green glow to the mist. It is a slight effect but provided some wonderful lighting on a number of the film’s set pieces. It also ensured the night scenes had an eerie ambience without having to resort to clichéd set dressing.
Close up shots of the fog were fairly easy to produce but the landscape shots were much trickier and required the creation of ‘black’ models of the scenery in order to film the fog floating through similar shapes. This footage was then placed over the actual shots of the locations to give the illusion of the fog moving in on a grand scale. Despite the movie’s age these composite shots really do give impression of the town being swallowed whole by the mist. To add further life and character to the fog Carpenter utilised some wonderful reverse photography. Watch as the mist slithers into nooks on The Seagrass when the boat is overwhelmed, and it’s silent but focused creeping about town at the movie’s conclusion. It has the slow but relentless march found in all good horror villains from Frankenstein to Michael Myers.
But without the fog’s spectral inhabitants this menace would’ve been beaten back with the use of a good hairdryer. Carpenter had to create that special something inside the mist that he had previously pondered at Stone Henge. Following the less-is-more rule the director wisely kept shots of the fog’s spectres to the bare minimum. We see a mouldy hand here, a sharp hook there, a menacing outline on rare occasions; surreptitious and rightly so, the unknown element shouldering the task of creating fear for much of the running time. The combined movement of the fog and its pirate ghosts is deathly silent and their presence comes with one of the most impressive on screen chill factors in modern horror cinema. Feel the tension when Elizabeth, Nick and Andy are stuck in Nick’s van, the motor stalled and the fogs inhabitants gliding ever closer. They start as basic shapes in the mist but become ever more defined the closer they get, right at the vehicles’ windows when Jamie Lee Curtis finally guns the engine.
Keeping the scares on the simple but effective side, the only sound that does accompany these spectres is a foreboding rap on the next victim’s front door. Prepare yourself for one of the greatest scares of all time when Mrs Kobritz answers her own call. The only clear shot of the spectres is saved for the final showdown when DJ Stevie Wayne happens upon a wormy face on the roof of her lighthouse-station. As with Halloween, Carpenter proved that using the most simple thriller film techniques is a sure-fire way to solid scares.
It took work to get to the final frightening article though. The first cut of the movie came in just under eighty minutes and was deemed too short for a theatrical release. Studio executives were also disappointed by the lack of scares. Despite feeling the pressure of a potential failed picture Carpenter and Hill utilised the limited time and budget they had left to shoehorn in as many top notch frights as possible. The additions turned out to be some of the film’s highlights. Thrown into the mix was the climatic scuffle on top of the lighthouse, the opening poltergeist activity, and the intensely creepy hospital confrontation between Elizabeth and one of the fogs recently deceased victims. Perhaps the best addition was the opening campfire scene. If there is one thing that Carpenter does better than any other director it is the opening gambit, a water-tight promise that the next hour and half will be spent in a cold sweat. A ghostly campfire yarn is chillingly delivered by veteran film producer John Houseman, nailing the viewer to their seat before the opening credits have rolled.
Casting the film Carpenter chose actors whose work he was already familiar, most notably Nancy Loomis/Kyes and Jamie Lee Curtis, both of whom got their break after appearing in Halloween. Following appearances in Terror Train (1980) and Prom Night (1980) Lee Curtis was starting to build her ‘Scream Queen’ reputation, and there is an element of Carpenter cashing in on her increasing horror popularity; her character Elizabeth has little to do other than be a sound board for Tom Atkins exposition delivering Nick Castle (named after Carpenter’s friend who filled Michael’s mask and boiler suit in Halloween).
Lee Curtis’ presence was made slightly more palatable once it was announced that her mother, the veteran actress and start of Psycho (1960) Janet Leigh, would be joining her in the picture, though it’s slightly disappointing that the pair don’t exchange any dialogue until the films’ climax. Elsewhere, Carpenter’s then wife Adrienne Barbeau performed admirably in the lead role of Stevie Wayne and the difference between her sultry radio tones and the anxious qualities employed when the fog takes hold is very affective. Utilising Hal Holbrook as Father Malone was also a clever turn, most audience members recognising him for his role as Mark Twain in Mark Twain Tonight (1967). Carpenter himself also took a small cameo as Bennett, Father Malone assistant. As an ensemble the cast work incredibly well to elevate the script, and mark The Fog out as one of the best acted horror films of the era.
The production itself deserves praise also. Antonio Bay is left rather anonymous, with limited shots of the town utilised; this could be a coastal town anywhere. The venues that do require fleshing out are created and shot expertly. Particularly breath taking is the lighthouse used as the base for the KAB radio station and the surrounding countryside. Carpenter and Hill were adamant that they would find a spectacular location to shoot the lighthouse scenes and to find their perfect locale they drove up the California coastline stopping at every lighthouse on the way until they found the right one. The venue they settled on is truly impressive not least due to the daunting four hundred clifftop steps that lead down to its rocky outcrop base. Its as remote a spot as one could imagine and no place to be trapped should a sinister sea mist take hold. Capturing these environments, Carpenter once again chose to film in the widescreen format. As with Halloween it provided a low budget film with a grandiose feel. The scares are all the more impressive when painted on such a large canvas.
Critics were relatively unmoved when The Fog was released. It received mixed reviews, but audiences were undeterred, pushing the film to a respectable box-office performance, $22million off of a $1.1million budget. Still, the film’s taking were slight when compared to the vast profit Halloween reaped. But if Carpenter failed to match it for profit, he more than met the challenge of matching its scares.
As with many of the late seventies / early eighties horror hits, at the turn of the millennium a remake was deemed necessary. Despite having stiff competition from the likes of Prom Night (2008) and Halloween (2007), Rupert Wainwright’s The Fog (2005) could well be the very worst of the modern horror remakes. Gone is Carpenter’s classic soundtrack, gone are the less-is-more frights and tension, gone are the likeable characters; in its place we get bland CGI, characters we don’t care about, and a plot that somehow manages to over complicate things despite being a carbon copy of the original. Not even the talents of Selma Blair, replacing Barbeau as DJ Stevie Wayne, can rescue the film.
See also The Fog (2005)