Monday, September 8, 2014

Monster Serial: THE FOG, 1980


After the release of his slasher/horror classic HALLOWEEN (1978), director/screenwriter John Carpenter was striking while the iron was hot with his next thriller, THE FOG (1980). At its worst, THE FOG proved that sometimes lighting just doesn’t strike twice ... at least not successively. At its best, THE FOG showed Carpenter had a real future as "master of the horror film."

The film tells the story of Antonio Bay, a remote California fishing community shrouded in the titular fog. The town’s centennial also marks the centennial of a town-government orchestrated conspiracy to rid the area of lepers by sending patients form the local leper colony out to sea in the middle of a violent storm. Their ghosts return in the form of fog to exact their vengeance.

It is important to note that the movie was a moderate commercial success with a wide range of critiques that ranged from "awful," to film critic Roger Ebert's "encouraging." Regardless of what critics thought, Carpenter was less than thrilled with the effort. He was so dissatisfied with the original cut that he went back to the studio for additional funds to do some re-shoots of the killing scenes. For him, there just wasn't enough violence.

For critics, however, the primary problem had less to do with a lack of violence, and considerably more to do with a lack of relatability. As Ebert pointed out in his review, there were two fundamental problems with the film. The first issue had to do with plausibility. It just seemed a bit ridiculous that fog, or even ghosts hiding in fog, could be a villain. No matter what, the ability of a horror film to terrify the audience banks on the notion that the villain is a viable creature or person. While Freddy Krueger (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), Leatherface (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) and Michael Myers (HALLOWEEN) were certainly bizarre, they stirred the imagination because they represented real people with tragic stories. On some level, the audience developed some level of sympathy for these murderers, giving them a human quality. There is no human quality you can assign fog.

The second problem came from a mistake in the screenplay. At no time during the film was it ever made clear who the ghosts were angry with. In the beginning of the film, the children are told the story of the crew members on the ship Elizabeth Dane who were murdered under rather dubious circumstances. In response to their untimely deaths, they vowed to return in 100 years and seek revenge. Revenge against whom? Surely even ghosts could figure out that in 100 years, anyone who was responsible for their deaths would be long dead. Without a deserving target, the whole purpose of revenge seems sort of pointless.

In a recent interview with Robert Rodriguez, Carpenter discussed the film, and the degree to which it was influenced by E.C. horror comics. The interview aired on the program “The Director’s Chair,” which is hosted on the Rodriguez’s El Rey Network. What the show made clear is that, even though he’s had his misfires, Carpenter still an important presence in the world of contemporary filmmaking.

It would be nice to absolve Carpenter from these fundamental flaws, but he was the co-writer with Deborah Hill, so he shares at least half the blame. That leaves his direction of the film. In true Carpenter style, the film’s saving graces are his technical skills and trickery. His use of music and camera angles during vicious murder scenes was able to squeeze out as much terror as possible. It's clear that Carpenter himself, is a fan of thrillers. He probably used his own personal reactions to Hitchcock films like PSYCHO and THE BIRDS as a study in human nature. If something scared him, maybe it would scare others. He was obviously more of a student than moviegoer. In this film, he even went so far as to ask his real-life spouse, Adrienne Barbeau (a non-smoker), to smoke during the movie as his tribute to his favorite Howard Hawks films where the leading ladies always smoked.

In retrospect, THE FOG may have failed as a follow-up to HALLOWEEN and a prelude to THE THING (1982), but it solidified Carpenter's place as a relevant director for years to come. Any other director would have made a mess out of a film like this. Carpenter's vision and ability to carry out that vision saved this film from being an absolute disaster.

Brandon Engel is a Chicago-based blogger with a background in journalism and film. Among his all-time favorite directors are: Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, and John Carpenter. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonEngel2


BT said...

One of my all time favorites. I love it's innocence, its atmosphere and the music.
Adrienne Barbeau was amazing in it, as far as I'm concerned.
And while I'm a huge Tom Welling fan & I like LOST's Maggie Grace, the remake just did not capture any of the originals charms.

Cousin Barnabas said...

I like this movie a lot, as well. I think it does exactly what it sets out to do: Tell a campfire-style ghost story.

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