The Fog (1980)

Filmmed in PortholeVision!
Filmed in scenic PortholeVision!

When one looks at his early career it becomes extraordinarily evident John Carpenter wanted very much to be the Howard Hawks of his generation. Even at his lowest, Carpenter made sure to aim squarely for Hitchcock Territory. For one brief, shinning moment (called 1978), it looked like he’d succeeded.

Too bad nothing fails like success. And if your directorial debut happens to become the most popular, iconic and financially successful independent movie in history (at the time) you might as well just give up and die. Otherwise you’ll have to spend your entire subsequent career dealing with uppity assholes who insist nothing will ever be as good as your first film. The rest is frustration, aesthetic decay and silence. Though I’m just kidding about that “silence” part since we haven’t even started talking about Carpenter’s sophomore slump, The Fog.

The Fog was Carpenter’s return to feature film after a brief hiatus in the dead lands of made-for-TV movies (where, among other things, he met Adrienne Barbeau). As such, it’s one of those weird little horror films you stumble over as you explore the early 1980s, jutting up like jagged rocks from a movie landscape strewn with masked killers and mutilated teenagers. In that sense, The Fog is a rare and special treat: a straight-up, out-and-proud ghost story that everyone ignored in order to go watch Friday the 13th during its original theatrical run.

Budwiser: Californian for "Beer."
Budwiser: Californian for "Beer."

I could bemoan that fact like the highfalutin snob I am, but after watching The Fog twice I honestly understand why it failed against Sean Cunningham’s illegal (and immoral, and unethical) cloning experiment. The very thing that made Halloween a success helped Friday the 13th trounce its competition and birth the First Great Wave of Slasher movies. (Though a May release date certainly helped…this one came out in February, and who goes to horror movies in February?) Simplicity is the name of the game. And while The Fog’s a simple ghost story, there’s nothing simple about its structure or its aims. References to H.P. Lovecraft, Dr. Phibes, The Thing From Another World, The Crawling Eye, and The Birds almost make the film feel like a giant in-joke, or an English crossword clue. Watching its characters struggle like flies trapped in amber, my mind wondered off and I wondered “Is this thing just one big joke? A love note to all the horror films that scarred Carpenter as a child? Even as his films scarred me?”

I’m going to go with that because, otherwise, very little of what follows makes sense. As a child, this film creeped me right the fuck out but, as an adult, I’m fascinated by how this film could do so much (almost everything) right…and still fumble the ball within sight of the end zone before running out the clock.

We open with a watch suspended in space. And in my head I hear the voice of Alex Diakun, underrated star of stage, screen and The X-Files, speaking from Episode 3×20, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space: “You are getting very sleepy…very…relaxed.” Probably not the frame of mind Carpenter intended to put me in…but that’s my brain for you. The watch’s owned by Mr. Machen (John Houseman) who is “entertaining” a campfire full of kids with an expository monologue disguised as a ghost story. One hundred years ago, he says, a ship called the Elizabeth Dane got caught up in a fog bank, mistook a campfire for a guiding light, and sank off the coast of this creepy little town we’re about to spend a movie wallowing in, Antonio Bay, California. The ghosts of the Elizabeth Dane still haunt the waters off Spivy Point, searching for the fire that led them to their watery grave. Pan up to a shot of some deserted beach as the town church bell tolls midnight and the credits begin. Oh, I see it’s not just “The Fog” but “John Carpenter’s The Fog.” Thank God we cleared that up.

So begins John Carpenter’s The Fog proper: with a seven minute credit sequence. Thankfully, Carpenter plays his titles over establishing shots of Antonio Bay’s many scenic locations (most of which we’ll never see again), deftly introducing us to three of our principal characters…plus two who’ll have nothing to do with anything.

A priest? Drinking? Well, I never.
A priest? Drinking? Well, I never.

The first main character we meet in the flesh is Father Malone, the town priest. We catch him just as he’s breaking into the communion wine, offering some up to his caretaker, Bennett (played by our writer/director). “Why don’t you come in around four tomorrow, Bennett?” Bennett rightly asks if he can expect to get paid sometime this century. “Why don’t you come in at six tomorrow, Bennett?” Damn, but the good Father is a real live dick. So when God bombs his desk with a piece of the church wall (jilted loose by an inexplicably-localized earthquake) I’m all like, “Go, God, go! That’ll teach Malone to fuck over his employees. Matthew 25:40, padre. Look it up sometime.” Except Malone’s just discovered a new bit of reading material ensconced in the wall…

Six minutes of weird stuff later (gas pumps fall from their alcoves, stuff falls off store shelves, synchronized car alarm Olympics) the Director credit finally fades away over a shot of one lone car driving down a deserted road. Meet Our Hero, Nick Castle (played by a mustache-less, and therefore unrecognizable, Tom Atkins. Seriously, it’s like his face is naked! Ugh!) Nick swerves to pick up a hitchhiker and…holy shit, it’s Jamie Lee Curtis! She asks him if he’s weird. He says, “Yes. Yes I am weird,” which anyone familiar with Atkins’ career knows well enough. Having had enough of normalcy, Jamie thanks God for weirdness and accepts a swing from Nick’s open container of Bud. Nick’s apparently her thirteenth ride. “Oh, great,” he says, taking another swig. “Weird and unlucky.” And drunk. Don’t forget drunk. As he utters the Immortal Line, an invisible something smashes all his car windows out. So perhaps these ghosts are really the Mystery Men‘s ghosts, inexplicably transported back through time and set upon Tom Atkins’ car in the mistaken belief he’s actually Casanova Frankenstein. Except that would be silly.

This is KHSV, Hot, Sexy-Voiced Radio.
This is KHSV, Hot, Sexy-Voiced Radio. We play all the hits down here.

Speaking of which, it’s time to meet the town D.J., Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau). She’s broadcasting “high tonight in the KAB lighthouse on Spivy Point,” and we’ve heard her sexy voice sling double entendres all throughout this credit sequence. “And in case you’ve forgotten, it’s April 21st. And happy birthday to Antonio Bay.” Her dialogue is a swiftly moving storm of exposition, blowing in from the sea beyond her lighthouse/radio station. In three lines we learn (a) she’s given up city life to grace Antonio Bay with her sexy voice, (b) she owns the radio station, and (c) there’s fuck-all going on in town. So little, in fact, that the town weatherman, Dan (Charles Cyphers) regularly calls her up in the middle of the night every night just to get his flirt on. Tonight, he also lets Stevie Wayne in on the mysterious fog bank coming from the east. It’s about to hit a trawler called the Seagrass about fifteen miles out. Pause to stand in awe of this vintage Carpenter characterization.

We find the Seagrass crewed by three drunks with nothing better to do than listen to Stevie Wayne. At first they dismiss her fog bank warnings…until the Fog appears, disgorging mysterious lights and a mysterious ship populated by…ghost pirates. Assuming they’re ghosts who now resort to piracy rather than pirates who continue their lawless ways from beyond the grave. In which case, they’d be pirate ghosts. Either way, the buccaneering spectres board the Seagrass and murder its crew with fish hooks, a sword, and a whole bunch of insert shots Carpenter put in their about a month before The Fog‘s initial release when he decided (a) the film was too short and (b) it wasn’t “scary” enough.

Back on dry land, we find Nick and Not-Laurie Strode have already gotten biz-ay while we were off watching people die. And Nick’s just now getting around to asking her name, Doh!-worthy moment on par with Dr. Dan Challis getting all the way into bed with Ellie Grimbridge before asking her age (see Halloween III). Not-Laurie’s name is Elizabeth, by the way (get it? Do you get it? Because the film will make very little out of it…besides going out of its way to make sure we “get” it) and in case you care, she’s a poor little rich girl from SoCal. Since I only care about one of those (and she’s a fictional vampire Slayer), I don’t very much care about Elizabeth. Nick…actually, I’m not sure what Nick does besides drink and drive. Neither is he. A knock on the door interrupts our lovers perusal of Elizabeth’s sketch book and a little shiver ran up my back at this point. It’s Michael Myers, I thought, come to kill them both for their unrepentant premarital sex! Luckily, Tom takes his sweet time putting his pants back on and getting to the front door, allowing his grandfather clock to strike One. With the Witching Hour at its end the clock face explodes…for some reason…and Nick’s spectral visitor disappears.

Damn you, Tom Atkins! Damn you to movie Hell!
Damn you, Tom Atkins! Damn your lucky, lucky ass to movie Hell!

So. I’ve no problem with pirate ghosts who command spectral fog. That’s a pretty cool idea. Light it right (and they do) and it’s darn spooky. And I’ll accept that these pirate ghosts and their spectral fog who can only come out at night just fine. But pirate ghosts who can only come out from midnight until one a.m.? Later we’ll learn…or rather, infer…that they can only come out for one hour a night, for two nights every one hundred years. Does that seem like a fate worse than death to anybody else? What are they doing the rest of the time? Twiddling their thumb-bones? What do they do during the day?

We’ll, let’s see: the morning after the Seagrass murders we rejoin one of the kids we saw in the prologue. He spies a gold coin in the surf and bends down to pick it up. A jump-cut teleports the gold away and replaces it with a piece of driftwood, the word “Dane” carved prominently into it. The kid, Andy (Ty Mitchell), brings this haunted wood straight home. Turns out he’s Stevie Wayne’s kid and he wakes mom up just to show her his haul. He’ll be our Tommy Doyle for the remainder of a picture. Here’s a sample of his dialogue: “Mom, can I have a stomach-pounder and a Coke?”

“After lunch.”

“Oh-kay…I’m gonna go look for another one. Maybe this time I can get the gold coin.”

Breaking away from this domestic bliss (and what the fuck is a stomach-pounder? Honestly…), we meet Mrs. Williams, some manner of Antonio Bay bigwig (and also Janet Leigh). Mrs. Williams is ranting at Sandy (Nancy Loomis), her Smithers, about the upcoming b-day festivities, which will double as Antonio Bay’s centennial. The two relay their crazy stories about the night before and we learn Mrs. William’s husband was one of those three unlucky stooges aboard the doomed Seagrass. He didn’t come home last night, obviously, annd Mrs. Williams is starting to worry. Sandy’s complete contempt for any part of the conversation that’s not exclusively Sandy-centric is equally obvious and delicious, because this is Nancy Loomis we’re talking about. “This town sits around for a hundred years and nothing happens,” Sandy says, “then one night the whole place falls apart.”

Because Elizabeth’s here, you see, and Elizabeth is Death On Legs (cherchez la femme, after all). Speaking of which, turns out one of the Seagrass stooges was also Nick’s friend, so he and Elizabeth have an excuse to take a boat ride out and explore the derelict ship. Elizabeth even mentions the fact that “things seem to happen to me.” Like this one time, when her brother went crazy on Halloween night and killed their sister. Then, fifteen years later…”I’m bad luck.”

Oops. Sword in your gut.
Acid indigestion can feel like a sword in your gut.

No you’re not. Unless you’re an anthropomorphic personification of an abstract concept (like, say, Evil…or Death…as in “Death has come to your little town, Sheriff.” Gah! I’m sorry, I can’t stop the Halloween allusions) a person cannot be bad luck. They can only have it. Elizabeth just happened to have he bad luck to hitchhike her way into a big-ol’ haunted town, its past sins being uncovered in the plot thread next door.

Seems Father Malone’s grandfather (who was also a priest…and in the very same church…don’t know how that worked) kept a diary concerning events leading to the Elizabeth Dane‘s sinking and the town father’s murderous complicity in same. He walled up the diary Cast of Amontillado-style and presumably left the priesthood to knock up Father Malone’s grandmother. When Mrs. Williams and Sandy drop by to see if the padre’s up for tonight’s festivities Malone quashes their enthusiasm with an extended reading from his grandfather’s diary.

Turns out the Elizabeth Dane was crewed by lepers intent on setting up a colony roundabouts. Rather than let them do so, Antonio Bay’s founders conspired to sink the ship and use the leper colony’s gold as seed money for their new little town. “Our celebration tonight is a travesty,” Malone insists. “We’re honoring murderers.” Okay…so? As if people don’t already do that all over the world every day. What do you think Independence Days are supposed to commemorate? Hugs and kisses? Maybe in the United States we lie to ourselves and say its all about a day these guys signed a piece of paper somewhere…even though they actually did that two days before…but if George Washington’s troops and the French navy hadn’t been so good at murdering English people we wouldn’t be commemorating jack…except, maybe, Boxing Day. Washington himself won the name “Devourer of Villages” from the Iroquois, and he earned it. He set a whole army on them with orders to do their best Godzilla impression. Does this make him any less “the father of our country”? No. If anything, that little stain of genocide on his record makes his prominence in our history even more appropriate. Should people still get his birthday off work? Hell yes! But we seem to have wandered from our point.

Having found the corpse of his dead friend (a spring-loaded corpse at that) aboard the Seagrass, Nick and Elizabeth haul it back to shore. The town doctor, Phibes (Darwin Joston…and ha-ha, for that character’s name, Carpenter) chats with Nick about how Nick’s friend looks like he’s been at the bottom of the ocean for weeks and how that’s impossible and blah-blah-blah. Elizabeth hangs out with the corpse…just so the corpse can inexplicably rises from its gurney, menace Elizabeth, and promptly drop dead. Again. No explanation is offered for this since nothing could possibly explain it, and Carpenter is more interested in his cheap scares than in telling a coherent story. Worse, the director’s commentary reveals he considered the Ghost Story to be a blanket excuse to do whatever the hell he wanted. “When it comes to a ghost story,” he says, “there are no rules.”

I’m sorry, John, but…bullshit.

Special guest appearance by Stephen King.
Special guest appearance by Stephen King.

Father Malone does offer an explanation for all this…but it only reminds me of Crazy Ralph from Friday the 13th. Antonio Bay, like Crystal Lake after it, has caught a case of the Death Curse and now the ghost lepers of the Elizabeth Dane are coming ashore to disrupt the centennial, kill the decedents of their original murderers, and reclaim their lost gold. Gold that Grandpa Malone apparently melted down into a giant cross and secured, like the journal, inside the church wall. As opposed to…ya know…exchanging it for some necessary goods or services or something.

There are four threads to the story (Father Malone’s, Stevie Wayne’s, The Nick and Elizabeth Show and Nancy Loomis is Too Cool for School), only three of which come together by the end of the flick. Stevie Wayne’s left out in the cold – literally stranded in her lighthouse/broadcast tower as the ghost lepers (or is that “leper ghosts?”) attempt to hack her up. What do these ghosts gain by menacing the town DJ? I don’t know. Would they have gone after anyone in that lighthouse? Or is Stevie Wayne Antonio Bay’s real living bad luck charm (though, goddamnit, that would still invoke cherchez la femme, wouldn’t it)? Apart from her sexy voice and a kid for the ghost lepers to menace (but not kill, since kids can’t die in American horror films), why is she in this film at all? She doesn’t even have an ominous coincidence embedded in her name. So why does the film lavish so much attention on her? (Other than the fact that she’s played by the director’s then-wife, of course?) At least Elizabeth gets to follow Nick around. At least Mrs. Williams and Sandy get to participate in the climactic fleeing for their lives…and, once everyone reaches the church, the climactic ripping-off of Night of the Living Dead.

Sad thing is, I really love Barbeau in this film, and I love Stevie Wayne as a character. Really, though, this should be Father Malone’s story. His grandfather caused all this. He’s the one with the diary, the Lovecraftian protagonist driven to the brink of insanity by reading found documents. I’d expect him to do a bit more than drink himself into a stupor. But no one had the money to keep Hal Holbrook around. His role is necessarily scaled back into an Exposition Delivery System. Much like Barbeau, who becomes both narrator and coordinator of the film’s climax…before her own ghost leper Olympics.

"Avon calling!"
"Avon calling!"

Despite having nothing to do but stumble around like headless chickens, Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee do very good jobs in their non-roles. It’s just their characters are so damn thin I spent half the film referring to them by their real names, not just to make a bunch of Halloween and Night of Creeps jokes, but because I honestly couldn’t think of their characters as people. John Carpenter’s never really cared about people as such (see The Thing) and at this point in his career he slavishly followed Edgar Allen Poe’s philosophy of composition: think of an effect first, work backward from that, and hope the result holds water. The Fog doesn’t, and so sinks into incoherence.

Carpenter didn’t help things by doing extensive reshoots after David Cronenberg’s Scanners made every horror movie producer howl for more gore. Hence the opening Houseman monologue. Hence Jamie Lee’s pointless scene with the pseudo-Shape. Hence all the close-up murder porn. They say you learn to shoot films in the editing room. This, though…this is a movie that feels like it was written in the editing room, a three minute ghost story padded out to feature length with mysterious shit that has nothing to do with anything and makes no sense when you think about it five minutes.

Yet I’m still inclined to like The Fog. I like all its characters, brief sketches though they may be, and I like Carpenter’s deft hand at establishing his subjects…mostly just so he can get the boring stuff out of the way and make room for more special effects. While that’s always nice, seeing Adrienne Barbeau go such a long way toward cementing her place as the go-to actress to play no-nonsense, classy broads in low-budget genre films is even nicer. So I should’ve just watched Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death again. I’ve learned my lesson.

Back in The Fog, Dean Cundey’s cinematography is brilliant. Half the film takes place at night and Cundey fills those shots with a cool, blue and gray haze that would be downright nightmarish if blue weren’t such a calming color. Since this is Carpenter, the film’s composed with an expert eye, and certain scares (particularly near the beginning) are exceptional. But The Fog‘s a lot like a gas giant:  there’s just not that much write home about once you get past the atmosphere.

"That you back there, Mikey? No gratuitous babysitter killing now, ya' hear?"
"That you back there, Mikey? No gratuitous babysitter killing now, ya' hear?"

Most of the problem lies with Carpenter’s wish to tell a Lovecraftian ghost story without Lovecraft’s trademark racism or contempt for the lower classes. Rather than stage scare-scenes that reinforce his themes and flow organically from the story, Carpenter edited the film around a series of scare scenes. As a result, the ghost lepers go on one of the silliest quests for vengeance ever.

If they want the gold, why don’t they roll right on up to Father Malone’s door and knock? (Because we need that bit for the climactic action set-piece, the film responds.) Why interrupt The Nick and Elizabeth Show right as Nick’s about to go back for seconds? (Because Jamie Lee won’t get naked for us.) There’s a very good scene where the piece of dirftwood Andy brought home (and his mom rightly confiscated from him) leaks spectral water onto some of Stevie Wayne’s equipment. A ghostly voice announces “Six must die!” before the board spontaneously combusts. Fine. So why kill the men of the Seagrass? Or Andy Wayne’s unfortunate babysitter? Where their ancestors the six accessories to Granpa Malone’s conspiracy? Why did we spend so little time with them, then? If we got to know those descendants as people (rather than set dressing) I might give a shit about their deaths, or about their ghost leper murderers.

Which just brings up the most obvious question of all: why in the hell did these ghost lepers wait around a hundred years before taking their revenge? Everyone responsible for their deaths is long dead, so there goes any chance for true vengeance. I know, “sins of the fathers” and “best served cold” and all that…but even the film seems to see that excuse for the anorexic bitch it really is. Hence the literal Cross of Gold, sure to make William Jennings Bryan mess his pants.

Really, I’m saddened to come back to The Fog and find it such a whole lot of nothing. Carpenter and company didn’t have the money to make the film as big as it deserved to be but, considering the final budget, it’s a miracle The Fog exists at all. It’s an enthusiastic over-reaching of a talented movie maker and his even-more-talented crew. That’s my favorite kind of nothing, so take it as you will.

GGG

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