Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Fog

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.


Hans A. said...

I totally agree with your sentiments about The Fog and seeing it at a young age. I have quite a bit a nostalgia towards this one, as well. I couldn't imagine growing up without Carpenter's films. I also, like many a young boy, grew to have a tremendous crush on Andrienne Barbeau. I also had a huge crush on Nancy Loomis, the finest actress to ever deliver the line, "Yes, ma'am." Great review.

Neil Fulwood said...

I know what you mean about fancying Ms Barbeau. I saw 'The Fog' and 'Escape from New York' quite close together at a very impressionable age. I don't think I even knew what the word "cleavage" meant.

And the pure sassiness of Nancy Loomis. I'd have loved to see her in a remake of 'His Girl Friday' playing the Rosalind Russell part - imagine what she could have done with the rapid-fire smart-mouthed dialogue!

J.D. said...

I really dig this film in a big way as well. It tends to get ignored sometimes for Carpenter's more beloved, high profile films (HALLOWEEN, ESCAPE FROM NY, THE THING, etc.) but I recently rediscovered it again and it's fast becoming a fave of mine.

There is a fantastic mood and atmosphere that Carpenter establishes right from the get-go that draws me in every time. Fantastic stuff.

Wonderful post. It makes me want to watch the film again.

Neil Fulwood said...

I love that 'The Fog' can give you that sense of rediscovery. My recollections of childhood are hazy at the best of times (some of it I've purposely blanked out) but I would guess I was eleven or twelve the first time I saw it.

My dad being the last person in the world to keep up with the Joneses, we didn't invest in a VCR until at least five years after they were common currency. One of the first titles I rented, keen to see how my childhood memories held up, was 'The Fog'.

Three years ago, browsing a video shop with my then girlfriend (now my wife) and having selected two titles in a "three for £20" sale, the 2-disc special edition of 'The Fog' jumped out at me. I've watched it a good half dozen times since then and I never get bored of it. The atmosphere, the characters, the music, the set pieces ... next to 'The Thing' I'd rate it as Carpenter's best.

J.D. said...

"The atmosphere, the characters, the music, the set pieces ... next to 'The Thing' I'd rate it as Carpenter's best."

Wow, really? I'd have to say, for me, ESCAPE FROM NY is my fave, followed very closely by BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.

Neil Fulwood said...

I'm planning to revisit 'Escape from New York' in the next few weeks. I'm even toying with the idea of sitting through the misconceived sequel on British TV tonight and doing a compare and contrast article.

J.D. said...

ESCAPE FROM LA? Yeah, it's a mess of a film. Sometimes you can pull of doing a sequel/remake (see EVIL DEAD 2 or DESPERADO) but Carpenter and Russell failed miserably and with such a killer cast of actors! Aigh. What a waste...

Neil Fulwood said...

Although it flies in the face of what this blog is about - ie. me having a blast writing about the movies I love - I'm feeling almost masochistic enough to do something on the late-period John Carpenter.

Take 'Ghosts of Mars' - so bad you start to wonder if Carpenter isn't doing it deliberately, just completely taking the piss out of how a movie should be structured, how a set-piece should be staged. You can almost - not quite, but almost - enjoy it as an anti-movie.

J.D. said...

"Although it flies in the face of what this blog is about - ie. me having a blast writing about the movies I love - I'm feeling almost masochistic enough to do something on the late-period John Carpenter."

You should! GHOST OF MARS does have its fans:

This is quite a good analysis/defense of the film - enough to make me want to watch it again.

For me, Carpenter's last, truly great film was IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, altho, I really do like VAMPIRES for completely un-PC B-movie romp that it is. Plus, to see James Woods as a foul-mouthed vampire killer is worth the price of admission alone.

Neil Fulwood said...

Eric Kursten at Acidemic is also a supporter of 'Ghosts of Mars'. His championing of the movie makes me half tempted to reapproach it.

I saw 'Vampires' when it first came out at the cinema and enjoyed Woods' turn - particularly the delightfully inappropriate scene where he slaps a priest around to get some information out of him!

Yes, I definitely think I'll do something next month on the late-period Carpenter.