Joe Shearer is co-owner of The Film Yap (www.thefilmyap.com).
The Fog was one of the first horror movies I watched with regularity. A spooky, atmospheric ghost story about the people of a small town confronting the ghosts of their past, the film starts with a chilling fireside story from the legendary John Houseman and builds with the same creeping sense of dread as Carpenter’s previous film, Halloween, leading to a similarly tense climax where the monsters and the town clash.
Perhaps the least splashy of John Carpenter’s early run of films, The Fog largely holds up to the ravages of time and is a superior, if somewhat unheralded, entry into his canon. In the wake of Halloween, a film that shifted the course of the horror genre for decades to follow, Carpenter opted for a more traditional ghost story that has roots in the story of America and in the costs of building a new society. It may not hit the heights of Halloween, but it’s a worthy entry in Carpenter’s filmography — and one that brings back his favorite stars and bit players alike to populate Antonio Bay like Jamie Lee Curtis, Charles Cyphers, Annie Loomis and Tommy Lee Wallace contributing roles of various sizes and grades of importance.
Curtis, on a high after her breakout in Halloween, goes back to the same genre that would soon have her dubbed the “Scream Queen,” with Terror Train, Prom Night, Road Games and Halloween II to immediately follow this.
The Fog takes place in Antonio Bay, California, a small town with a dark past, on the dawn of its centennial. The local legend of the sinking of a clipper ship marks the town’s birth, but the circumstances behind the crash and death of all aboard is Antonio Bay’s real legacy, one of willful cruelty and murder that will soon come back to literally haunt its residents.
Father Malone, Antonio Bay’s priest and de facto leader, had been approached by the leader of a nearby leper colony, asking permission to set up a community nearby. Malone agreed but soon realized that such a development would bring shame upon his town and the prospect of having such people around would be an unpopular political move as well.
On the night the colony was to hit land, Malone shut down the town’s lighthouse that was to guide the Elora Dane, the ship carrying the members of the colony, safely to port. Instead, he set a fire on the beach and when the Dane followed the light, the ship was destroyed by rocks near the shore. Everyone onboard died.
Over the next 100 years, most of the town forgot about this sinister development, but the descendants of those families mostly remained in Antonio Bay. Malone’s grandson (played in the film by Hal Holbrook) took up the mantle of the town’s priest, and it’s he who discovers Antonio Bay’s tragic past, which will soon become a curse.
As the clock strikes midnight on the date of the centennial, strange things begin happening. Car alarms go off, glass seems to break spontaneously. And a mysterious fog begins to roll toward shore.
Of course we know the fog contains the spirits of the dead lepers, betrayed and murdered by the town from which they sought only kinship. And 100 years later, they are coming back to exact their revenge.
The action chiefly follows a handful of Antonio Bay residents: Nick Castle (Tom Atkins), a local man who picks up hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Curtis); Malone, who discovers his grandfather’s confessional diary that outlines his family’s shameful legacy; and Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), owner of the town’s lighthouse and owner and DJ of the town’s radio station, which plays old standards during the day and features her silky voice at night.
When night falls on the town, the fog returns, and it’s here we see the scope of the destruction its ghostly inhabitants aim to wreak on Antonio Bay. There are no innocents, even kindly old Mrs. Kobritz (Regina Waldon), the babysitter for Stevie’s young son, Andy (Ty Mitchell), who had earlier found the first evidence of the Elora Dane’s return on the beach.
The special effects are rather simple but have an elegance and believability for the time. The zombies are seen almost entirely in shadow, save for a few “money shots” that rely on closeup. That Carpenter famously made “Halloween” on the cheap just a couple of years prior is still evident here. He clearly has a larger budget, but still employs a less-is-more approach. Kills feel violent and graphic but are largely bloodless, with hooks, swords and other sharp instruments used.
It’s the air of menace and unstoppability of the fog that gives the film its effectiveness. The fog is a creeping, slow-moving behemoth but Carpenter does a good job of keeping the townspeople unaware until the fog blocks all of their major escape routes, pushing most of the film’s principles toward the church (a parallel struggle, where the fog envelops Stevie at the lighthouse, is perhaps even more terrifying given its solo nature). The final scene, where Father Malone and the rest of the townspeople have to confront the literal sins of their fathers (or grandfathers and great-grandfathers, as it were) builds to a face-to-face confrontation, and a fitting, if somewhat silly, denouement.
Its spooky ambiance and a fun sins-of-the-father storyline, with just a touch or two of camp, give The Fog its appeal. For me, it’s a rare relic of my childhood, one that is both a film of its time and one that can be enjoyed by today’s audiences and passed down to additional generations … like a fond curse.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018
Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma
Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel
The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull
FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey
Cat People (1942) — Aly Caviness
The Child’s Play Series — Salem
The Shining (1980) — Dave Gutierrez
Hellroller — Richard Propes
Poltergeist III — Greg Lindberg
Scream — Heather Knight
The Witch — Rick Dossey
The Frankenstein Cycle — Lou Harry
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors — Sam Watermeier
Eastern Horrors — Alex Holmes
Unfriended — Austin Lugar
Freaks (1932) — Alys Caviness-Gober
As Above, So Below — Jonathan Curole
The Beyond — Nick Rogers
The Dentist — Mitch Ringenberg
The Halloween Franchise — Evan Dossey