Posted to coincide with Adrienne Barbeau’s 64th birthday.
There is much to like about ‘The Fog’ – its effortlessly eerie atmosphere, Dean Cundey’s glorious widescreen cinematography, Carpenter’s minimalist score – but where it excels is in its economy of narrative and characterisation.
A pre-credits sequence in which old-timer Mr Machen (John Houseman) tells a campfire tale to a group of children pretty much sets the whole film up in less than five minutes. This done, we’re introduced in quick succession to our half-dozen protagonists: DJ Stevie (Adrienne Barbeau), hitchhiker Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), boatman Nick (Tom Atkins), mayor Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh), her PA Sandy (Nancy Loomis) and alcoholic priest Father Malone (Hal Holbrook).
These characters and their interactions (in more ways than one in the case of Nick and Elizabeth who, unlike Kelly Clarkson, do hook up – and do so without any preliminaries) also help establish the film’s locale. Antonio Bay is a coastal town on the eve of its 100th anniversary celebrations. While Kathy oversees the preparations, Stevie broadcasts about the event from her station (housed in an isolated lighthouse). One person not in a party mood is Father Malone, whose discovery of his grandfather’s journal reveals that the town was founded on an act of murder.
In brief, a rich leper named Blake pays good money to Antonio Bay’s founding fathers so he could establish a colony nearby. Horrified at the prospect, but seduced by greed, they ruthlessly betray him. Fires lit on the beaches – ostensibly to guide Blake’s ship, the ‘Elizabeth Dane’, to safe mooring – lure it onto the rocks. All onboard perish. One hundred years later, the sea gives up its dead (well, Blake’s contingent of them anyway) and it’s vengeance-a-go-go.
John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s script is a symphony of spooky set-pieces, often leapfrogging from one ghostly bit of business to the next with such single-mindedness that the plot devices connecting them have a wonderfully admirable sense of honesty about them when, by any set of objective critical perameters, they ought seem hokey, contrived and laughable.
Need a piece of exposition vis-a-vis the dark secret the township was built on and the relevance of it being the 100th anniversary – one, moreover, that implicates Father Malone’s grandfather? Have a brick fall out of the rectory wall revealing granddad’s diary shortly before Kathy and Sandy turn up for no other reason than Malone can sit them down and read the pertinent entries to them. Oh yeah, and have this happen just after midnight on the day of the anniversary.
Need a primer that the vengeful ghosts will take their cutlasses and fish-hooks to six unlucky individuals, this being the number of original conspirators? Have someone find a piece of driftwood bearing the lettering ‘DANE’ (guess where it came from? and while you’re guessing, please overlook the fact that the ship went down a century ago!) and then have the lettering change mysteriously to ‘SIX MUST DIE’.
Okay, those last couple of paragraphs are as redolent with nitpicking as they are with cheap sarcasm and probably make it sound like I’m knocking ‘The Fog’. Far from it. It’s one of my favourite Carpenter movies, the equal of ‘Halloween’ and surpassed only by ‘The Thing’; and it speaks for itself that the contrivances of its construction – which would annoy the hell out of me in any other movie – somehow add to the pleasure of ‘The Fog’.
I think this owes to seeing it at a young age. ‘The Fog’ was one of the rare horror films my father let me stay up and watch. War movies and westerns were his preference – staying up was permissible when ‘Where Eagles Dare’ or ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ were on – but he didn’t like horror. A child’s imagination is an open window and for me ‘The Fog’ wasn’t just a horror film: it was a distillation of all the horror films the old man hadn’t let me watch. It was everything I’d imagined they were like.
I don’t tend to get misty-eyed over my childhood or spend time dwelling on the past, but in some respects it was great being a kid. Particularly where movies were concerned. Staying up late to watch a “grown up” movie – awesome! – and not having my enjoyment spoiled because I had the critical facilities to deconstruct, analyse and weigh up whether it was good or bad. I had no idea back then of what a plot device was, or a plot hole, or a contrivance. The “why?” of things never mattered. It was all about getting caught up in what was happening, holding your breath during the scary bits and relishing that delicious shiver when something creeped you out.