Director/Coscreenwriter: John Carpenter
By Roderick Heath
John Carpenter helped change the face of horror cinema with his 1978 hit Halloween. This change, as it soon proved, was not for the better, as legions of poor imitations of his stark modernist nightmare, which translated the motifs of the Italian giallo horror style into American suburban paranoia and mixed them with a radical embrace of purely figurative villainy, filed onto movie screens. Carpenter’s immediate follow-up, The Fog, sits between the singular success of Halloween and the pulpy thrills of Escape From New York (1981), which would see Carpenter work for the first time with favoured star Kurt Russell. The Fog, in spite of a poor remake in 2005, remains by comparison neglected in Carpenter’s oeuvre. It is nonetheless one of the gems of the director’s early career, at a time when it seemed he could do no wrong, and one of the finest cinematic hymns to the pure malevolent joy of telling a ghost story. Halloween explored the frisson stemming from the most sepulchral of childhood fantasies associated with the eponymous date, reinventing the Boogeyman as a blank and primal force of brutality uncontained by any earthly concern or interest. By contrast, The Fog aimed for a more traditional evocation of the mood of campfire spook tales, making this motif both its key-note and its driving logic, to the extent where it opens with a celebration of this age-old act, as children, bathed in flickering firelight, sit in wrapt attentiveness as old sea salt Mr Machen (John Houseman) narrates.
Machen holds an old fob watch out to tick away the seconds to midnight, before snapping it shut and announcing there’s time for one more story before the witching hour begins. He recounts the tale of the Elizabeth Dane, a ship that sank off the coast of the small northern California town of Antonio Bay, smashed to pieces on the rocks when fooled by a mysterious wrecker’s light, bathed in an unholy fog. Carpenter’s camera details the enthralled faces of the children Machen entertains and the aged storyteller’s own visage, before craning up over a dune to survey Antonio Bay itself in the midnight moonlight, placid and beautiful, linking the layers of storytelling involved as well as the spoken myth with the real locale. The eerie strains of a coastal fog horn blare out as well as the drone of Carpenter’s usual simple yet unnervingly perfect electronic scoring, and the story Machen has told soon proves less entertainment than warning and invocation. The Fog explores the town with its faint fringes of nocturnal life, cleaners, lone duty policemen, drinkers. Father Patrick Malone (Hal Holbrook), after seeing off the local church’s odd-job man (Carpenter) who wants to be paid at an inconvenient moment, is shocked when a block seems to spontaneously fall out of the wall in his office. This reveals a hidden nook where Malone discovers his own grandfather’s old journal, containing a menacing missive: “Midnight ‘til one belongs to the dead – good lord help us.”
True to this word, around the town, strange phenomena begin occurring: tremors shake supermarket shelves, gas pumps fall from their cradles, telephones ring en masse, car alarms suddenly erupt in deafening din, and household furniture moves about by itself. Driving into town, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) picks up a hitchhiker on a dark and lonely stretch of road, Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis), and his rapport with her is both interrupted and deepened as the windscreen is suddenly shattered by the same unseen force. This is all accounted with nerveless, intimate detail by Carpenter, relying on the intense power of stillness and quiet, infused and interrupted by mysterious powers readying to shatter the illusion of normalcy, as the past returns quite literally to haunt Antonio Bay.
Ironically, much of The Fog’s first 20 minutes had be to be hastily reshot and reassembled with the aid of Carpenter’s key collaborators Debra Hill and Dean Cundey, as the film Carpenter had initially envisioned was too short and enigmatic, and also out of date, as the craze Halloween had started for amassing body counts and brutal violence far outpaced its creator. Yet the result adds up to a perfect encapsulation of Carpenter’s feel for the fundamental dynamic and necessary rhythm of the horror genre, and his reliance on visual storytelling as something that does not always require visceral effect to build intense engagement. Already in 1980 this faith in mood, composition, coherence, and a carefully calibrated sense of unfolding story tethered to a sense of locale and mindset, was starting to look outmoded in genre cinema, and indeed whilst today Carpenter’s best work is considered iconic in nostalgia as exemplary old-school cinema, in its original context Carpenter’s work was staked in an ethic of functional intelligence with roots in an older, vanishing filmic sensibility. The Fog was, then, an important crossroads not merely for Carpenter himself, but for the genre, as a kiss goodbye to a classical brand of horror.
The events that plague Antonio Bay as midnight rolls around, redolent of some invisible force playing havoc with the trappings of modern civility (anticipating Carpenter’s much more overt war on sense-severing technology in They Live, 1988, and the finale of Escape From LA, 1997) prove to be a mere prologue to a far more vivid resurgence of supernatural forces, as three fishermen, Dick Baxter (James Canning), Al Williams (John Goff), and Tommy Wallace (George “Buck” Flower), who have stayed out to get drunk, have their boat overtaken by a strange fog bank moving against the wind, and become witness to a ghostly sailing ship sliding past their vessel. Dark, gnarled figures appear on the deck and slaughter the trio, whilst their boat drifts on in the curling mist. Although more visibly violent, this sequence is squarely in a genre tradition that favours intense atmosphere, and vivid contrasts of modernity and the atavistic, wraith-like forms of dead men and ghost ships. It’s offered with a refusal to smirk at the hoariness, only allowing a momentary note of dry humour to slip by (“She’s crazy, there’s no fog bank out there…Hey, there’s a fog bank out there!”) before the weirdness starts. Carpenter’s editing keeps what is seen partly elusive, almost cryptic, and resolves in a moment of pure, phobic nightmarishness, as Baxter is left alone on the dark bridge, panicking as he reports mysterious objects on the radar, thinking the dripping, staggering zombie wielding a sharp tool behind him is one of his friends. One of the same gruesome figures seems to come knocking at Nick’s door, as he and Elizabeth recline in post-coital calm, only to vanish when Nick opens the door exactly at the stroke of 1 a.m., and the forces of darkness retreat into the sea again.
The Fog maintains Halloween’s less-is-more ethos whilst expanding its scope far wider, as it plays out with a similar Greek drama-like limitation to slightly more than a 24-hour period. The previous film reduced its killer to the status of purified, blank symbol of fear and encouraged the audience, like some other recent horror hits like The Exorcist (1973), to give themselves up to the irrational without appeal to psychological or social realities. The Fog on the other hand presents its wraiths as the spirit of old wrongs returning to extract a peculiar, fearsome brand of justice from all who have profited from those crimes. This “rotting body politic” motif recurs constantly in Carpenter’s best work, commencing in the long-achieved breakdown of the professional astronauts in Dark Star (1974) and recurring in Assault in Precinct 13 (1976) and many films after The Fog. It accords with a thematic strand that was popular more in ‘70s horror fiction, including often bobbing up in Stephen King’s works, in keeping with a post-‘60s exploitation of anxieties about suppressed and repressed aspects of history and social life.
Carpenter and Hill’s screenplay joins this anxiety to another theme which became attractive after Jaws (1975) and Nashville (1975), exploiting American bicentennial angst, where communal celebrations become moments for eruptions of those repressed forces, but here given an explicit basis in the crimes of that community: “We’re honouring murderers,” Malone, the devolved remnant of that tradition, murmurs. The founding and growth of Antonio Bay is linked, as Malone discovers through his grandfather’s diary, to a murderous crime in which the settlers who picked out the bay for a home, horrified by the thought of a leper colony being founded a short distance away, conspired to accept the money paid to them by the colony’s financier Blake, and then caused the wreck of the ship, with nature itself seeming to aid the calamity. As the hundredth anniversary of this crime is nigh, however, the fog that seemed to aid the wreckers now returns as a cloak for the emerging dead, who set out to kill the descendants of the conspirators and anyone else who gets in their way.
Carpenter’s faith in pure storytelling is captured in the relish of the depiction of it in Machen’s opening speech, and of course the character’s name evokes Arthur Machen, the Welsh author who wrote and collected ghost stories, some of which helped feed the Halloween mythos. And yet a modernist’s vibrant restraint is constantly in evidence throughout The Fog, refined to a rigorous twinning of form and function. The mid-section of The Fog, between the two nights of ghostly vengeance, entwines off-hand characterisation with exposition. Solitary radio host Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) takes over from Machen as a “narrator”, as her vigil from the lighthouse, where her radio station broadcasts from, makes her the one person who can tie together the disparate threads of action, and guide them with a director’s viewpoint. Another layer of storytelling opens in the inter-cutting between Malone reading his grandfather’s diary, and Nick recounting a sea story of his father’s that relates to the unfolding drama.
But the film never allows meta-narrative impulses to impede its essential classicism. The personality of the film is signalled by the number of character names given to Carpenter’s collaborators current and former. Carpenter’s fondness for large casts with a Hawksian interactive affinity, and a notable diffusion of heroic status over several characters, hinted at in his earlier movies, comes more fully into focus here as The Fog divides it attention between multiple character threads of interest that eventually collide, and the story converges into one of the siege situations Carpenter has been so fond of. Stevie’s drama and Nick and Elizabeth’s hunt for the source of the mystery connects with Malone’s uncovering of the grim truth whilst Al Williams’ wife Kathy (Janet Leigh) attempts to organise the memorial to the lie, with the aid of her sarcastic assistant Sandy Fadel (Nancy Loomis). It was entirely apt that after Halloween’s several overt references to Psycho (1960), including casting Leigh’s daughter, that Marion Crane herself appeared in the follow-up, and Leigh gives a deft seriocomic performance as a hyperactive booster plunged into a survival struggle, exchanging sundry sarcastic barbs with Sandy (“You’re the only person I know who can make ‘yes ma’am’ sound like ‘screw you!’” “Yes ma’am.”) as a wry commentary on friction between old-fashioned pluck and new-age indolence.
Carpenter’s work with cinematographer Cundey, which had helped make Halloween the film it is, and creating a near-legendary pattern for the use of the wide Panavision screen, is here a stream of restrained beauty and perfectly composed tensions, capturing crisply the alternately eerie and picturesque shores of the northern California setting, skirting Bodega Bay, the setting of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), which is mentioned, with Carpenter getting to pay nods to the master in his uneasily becalmed shots Barbeau driving across the landscape. As in the Hitchcock film the seemingly limitless, empty expanse of the ocean becomes the place where a nameless threat gathers, whilst Carpenter carefully and insinuatingly suggests that present evil is only ever the hangover of past evil, refusing to be laid to rest, and he offers glimpses, sometimes direct but often cunningly supple and elusive, of the irrational nature of the threat, as objects transmute and the seemingly hard contours of reality melt away in the numinous mist.
As is often the case in Carpenter’s work, it’s the specificity of the setting and the characterisations that infuses the drama with a rare kind of life, as Carpenter captures the feel of the small town exactingly, catching both the fine details of a blue-collar, workaday place, and also some of its contradictions, like Nick’s status as a working class bohemian, who connects with rich girl Elizabeth because like her, he has no idea what to do in his life. Although Carpenter was about to become associated with Russell, Atkins, who would also star in the ill-fated but interesting Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983), was a perfect actor for the director’s oeuvre with his seemingly plebeian charisma and looks, heavy-set and vividly masculine in the least traditionally Hollywood fashion, and he’s terrific as the competent but thoughtful, slightly haunted-seeming Nick, who’s intelligent and imaginative but used to the risky, subtly dangerous world of the fishing fleet of Antonio Bay.
By contrast, Stevie is a big city refugee, who surveys the ocean and murmurs, “Nothing but water, Stevie. But it sure beats Chicago.” In her seaside house Carpenter surveys, dispassionately, photos of herself, her son Andy (Ty Mitchell), and a man, presumably her husband and the boy’s father, in their former enterprises in radio, and the fact that Stevie keeps these photos in view suggests the man died rather than divorced, and perhaps therefore running from a peculiar kind of urban horror only to encounter another kind of it. Barbeau’s terrific performance is at its best as Stevie attempts to stay at her post even as she’s wracked by fear for her son who’s directly in the fog’s path, perhaps the film’s keenest moment of emotional engagement, coexisting with an interesting post-Watergate subtext, interrogating about the slippery divide between reporting on crisis and being involved in it, and to whom responsibilities ultimately belong. By the film’s end Stevie’s ivory tower is being assaulted by decaying remnants of men, emanations of a primeval Id that could stand in for every fear Stevie as a single mother has ever tried to stave off. She directs the survivors from the town to Malone’s church as a theoretical refuge, except that’s exactly where the dead killers are heading in pursuit of Malone. Curtis, by the same token, gets to leave behind her role in Halloween as the haplessly virginal yet plucky final girl in playing the game, swinging Elizabeth, whilst still playing a young woman who seems initially out of her depth but who proves finally equal to the nightmares around her.
Carpenter, like many of the other filmmakers who emerged in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and were ennobled with the general epithet “Movie Brats”, often played games with the referential nature of his excursions, never placing them in quotation marks as in the next wave of post-modern directors a la Tarantino, but trying to iron them into the texture of the film, much as his ultimately quite different but similarly rooted generational fellows Spielberg and Lucas. The Fog may in turn have influenced some other filmmakers: Michael Mann’s The Keep (1984) is in some ways a redeployment of this film’s aesthetics with a more aggressively expressionist tilt. Some of Carpenter’s concepts owe quite a bit to the little-seen 1958 British sci-fi horror flick The Trollenberg Terror (also called The Crawling Eye), from which it borrows one significant element – the smothering fog concealing the lurking evil – and a couple of signature scenes, including a corpse climbing off its deathbed and stalking a heroine, and one in which one character hears another being killed on the other end of a phone line. The former scene also sees Carpenter following in Brian De Palma’s wake of consciously remixing elements of earlier scenes from his films and letting them play out in different fashions, as a late moment from Halloween in which Curtis had the apparently dead Michael Myers rise up behind her is tweaked now as Baxter’s very dead, sea-rotted corpse picks itself up and lurches towards Elizabeth with scalpel in hand, only to trip and leave a mysterious sign that seems to be an ‘M’ scratched into the linoleum – a Fritz Lang shout-out?
This moment points forward in turn to one of the creepiest scenes in Carpenter’s up-coming remake of The Thing (1982), whilst a late scene sees Stevie mimicking the “watch the skies” speech at the end of the 1951 original; the Cold War era message of vigilance is here perverted into one of historical awareness. The second quote from The Trollenberg Terror, as Stevie tries to talk smooth-talking meteorologist Dan (Charles Cyphers) from checking out whose knocking at the door of his remote weather station, only to hear his dying gurgles as a baling hook is jammed in his neck. Much of Val Lewton’s psychological spirit is apparent throughout The Fog, particularly in Carpenter’s emphasis on brusque, eliding edits and oblique framing that constantly render the source of threat slightly out of focus and easy dismissal. The Fog is also marked out by its strong sense of a literary legacy in the form: Carpenter’s constant genre masters Nigel Kneale and H.P. Lovecraft are invoked, anticipating The Evil Dead (1981) in filching Lovecraft through the means of a malefic tome that guides the action, whilst the narrative echoes with references to Machen, M.R. James, Arthur Conan-Doyle, and Sheridan LeFanu, the formative masters of the ghost story.
At the same time, the driving force of Halloween, a solid basis in that modern campfire tale, the urban legend, which exploded in the alarmism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, is identifiable here too. This is manifest in the phobia-exploiting images of mysterious visitors wielding large vicious weapons, and in the sense of isolation around the hitchhiking Elizabeth and solitary Stevie, an intimate awareness of that isolation in a world where threat lurks. Stevie’s radio show, which plays vintage big band jazz, helps generate the intense feeling of both late-night, nostalgia-flecked warmth whilst also reinforcing the sense of isolation. One great and also slightly amusing aspect of The Fog is the unadorned simplicity and force of its suspense situations, including perhaps the absolute best ever “can’t get the car moving” nail-biter sequence, as Elizabeth struggles to get Nick’s truck moving after he’s saved Andy from the zombies, with the shuffling ghouls closing in as Elizabeth struggles to get the truck in gear. Part of the beauty of this scene is its precision of character detail under pressure: Elizabeth has obviously never driven a vehicle like the truck before, and she wrestles the gears with frantic, wheel-slapping frustration but refusing to give up and finally succeeding. The finale, which sees the main cast converge in Malone’s church, sees Carpenter at last back in the siege movie territory he loves so much, with the memorably bold visions of the zombies’ gnarled, discoloured, bandage-swathed hands shattering the stained glass windows and reaching out of the hallucinatory fog.
Carpenter’s habitually dark tendency of killing off unexpected and empathetic characters was more muted than usual here, although he doesn’t mind having the cutesy old babysitter Mrs Kobritz (Regina Waldon) fall into the zombies’ clutches. But he saves one of his darkest final blackout jokes for the very end, as it seems that evil has been satisfied by Malone’s gesture of sacrifice to the ghosts, presenting the gold stolen from them which his grandfather hid away in the form of a cross to Blake (Rob Bottin), the walking dead standing in the midst of the church unfazed by the usually sacrosanct territory in their mission. Malone’s handover of the gold sees an eruption of supernatural power, Nick snatching the priest away as Blake and his crew vanish, apparently returned to the netherworld satisfied. But later, as Malone mulls over the meaning of his survival, he’s confronted again by the ghouls, and this time Blake dispatches him with one swift, brutal blow. The message is as inescapable as it is grimly funny: the past will exact all its debts from the present eventually, and you can only buy it off so long.