In 1978, writer/director/composer John Carpenter thrilled cinemagoers worldwide with his horror masterpiece, Halloween. The film, which was made for the paltry sum of $320,000.00 went on to gross $70 million and not only became the most financially successful independent film of all time (until 1999’s The Blair Witch Project), but was praised by hardcore fans as well as mainstream critics. The film’s enormous success instantly made Carpenter a household name and everyone waited with bated breath wondering what his next project would be.
The wait was short-lived as independent studio Avco-Embassy Pictures announced in 1979 that their next project would be the first in a two-picture deal (the second being Escape from New York) from the creator of Halloween, and that film’s title would be The Fog.
The story was born during a visit to Stonehenge one foggy afternoon when Carpenter turned to his co-writer/co-producer, the late, great Debra Hill, and asked her, “What do you think is in that fog?” This idea immediately got their creative juices flowing and the dynamic filmmaking duo quickly wrote the screenplay for The Fog. Carpenter would go on to direct as well as compose the musical score and Hill would produce.
Returning from Halloween (and performing the same duties) would be master cinematographer Dean Cundey, camera operator Raymond Stella, and film editors Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace. Wallace also served as The Fog’s production designer along with doing voiceovers and playing a ghost in the film.
The new chiller would star Halloween’s leading lady and then burgeoning scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis as well as feature two of Halloween’s terrific supporting actors: Charles Cyphers and Nancy Loomis.
The rest of the cast would be comprised of even more amazing talent such as Carpenter’s then wife Adrienne Barbeau (Maude, Creepshow, Escape from New York), Janet Leigh (Touch of Evil, Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate and mother of Jamie Lee Curtis), Tom Atkins (Halloween III, Night of the Creeps, Maniac Cop), Hal Holbrook (Magnum Force, Lincoln, Creepshow, Wall Street) and John Houseman (The Paper Chase, Rollerball, Ghost Story).
i>The Fog was shot in the spring of 1979. Parts were filmed in a studio, but most were shot at actual California locations. Most notably Point Reyes, California and Inverness, California; two of the most absolutely gorgeous areas ever committed to celluloid, in a horror film, at least.
Made for one million dollars and released in February of 1980, The Fog is an old-fashioned ghost story that tells the tale of Antonio Bay, a small, seaside community that was built with gold stolen from a leper colony that wished to settle there. One foggy night on the 21st of April, the town’s founders intentionally used a campfire to lure the unwanted leper ship toward the rocks, causing it to crash. One hundred years later to the day, the fog returns to the still thriving Antonio Bay with the vengeful ghosts of the murdered lepers enshrouded within.
Although a commercial success, the wonderfully atmospheric film was met with mixed reviews upon its release. It was, of course, inevitable that some critics and fans would (and still do) compare it and find it inferior to Halloween. It’s an unfair comparison as they are two extremely different films. Although not in the same league as Carpenter’s masterwork, The Fog has so many wonderful things going for it that it’s hard to decide where to begin.
First off, it has been stated over the years that The Fog was written in response to some critics accusations of Halloween being a work of pure style with very little in the way of substance. To prove that they could indeed create something that involved a detailed narrative, Carpenter and Hill not only gave The Fog a more complex story, but also added the fact that the film is about the art of storytelling. Take that, critics.
John Houseman’s character of crusty, old Mr. Machen sits around a campfire telling the children the story of the Elizabeth Dane; the lepers’ clipper ship that was lost in the fog and lured to its doom one century ago. As he relays to the enthralled and terrified children how the ghosts of the Elizabeth Dane will rise from their watery tombs and seek vengeance on those who conspired against them, the town’s church bell chimes, signaling that it is now midnight, April 21st and the fog does indeed return. The idea here, Carpenter says, is that Machen is not only telling the director’s story verbally, but that his oral tale may have actually caused the vengeful spirits to return. It’s a story within a story and it reminds us of Edgar Allan Poe’s quote which appears at the beginning of the film: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”
Poe isn’t the only famous writer of the macabre that the eerie film pays homage to. Characters mention locations such as Arkham Reef (Arkham was a fictional city created by famed horror author H.P. Lovecraft) and John Houseman’s storyteller character is named Mr. Machen (after horror/fantasy author Arthur Machen). By doing this, Carpenter and Hill not only pay tribute to the literary giants who inspired their film, they also drive home the point that The Fog is based on story and not just style.
That story, however, is sometimes criticized for not being focused enough. The dialogue tells us that the undead lepers, led by Blake who is their captain, are after the descendants of the six original conspirators and although they do pursue the six, they also go after quite a few others. Some have dismissed The Fog because of this, saying that the writing is flawed, but with the exception of one minor scene, this is not true. It is true that the ghosts are after six specific people and it is also true that they attack several others, but there are reasons. The first non-descendant they attack is radio disc jockey Stevie Wayne’s (Adrienne Barbeau) son Andy (Ty Mitchell). The reason for this is that Stevie, whose radio station is located inside of a lighthouse, is in constant contact with the weatherman (Charles Cyphers) and is aware of everything that the fog is doing. When she attempts to tell the sheriff and warn the town, the angry ghosts decide to punish her by going after her son. Stevie screams over the airwaves, pleading for someone to help Andy, so Nick (Tom Atkins) and Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), who are also non-descendants, attempt to do just that and, in the process, also wind up being chased by the angry specters. Meanwhile, the noble Stevie continues to alert the town of the fog’s whereabouts until Blake and his men, fed up with her interference, finally come for her.
So, as you can see, the ghosts’ pursuing other characters besides the six makes sense. Unfortunately, there is one scene that does not. Early in the film, when the fog first returns to Antonio Bay, one of the ghosts eerily knocks on Nick’s door. Nick approaches the door and the hidden spirit raises its scythe. Story-wise, it makes absolutely no sense for them to target Nick and it hurts the film slightly. I’m guessing it was added in to give the ghosts a greater feeling of menace early on. After all, Carpenter himself has stated that after cutting the film together, he realized that something was missing. The film wasn’t frightening enough. It didn’t work, so Carpenter went back and re-shot, re-edited, and re-scored certain scenes, adding more mood and scares.
Much like Halloween, The Fog utilizes several different scare techniques. Naturally, the main ingredient is edge-of-your-seat suspense. This is most evident in the scene where Nick and Elizabeth try to start their truck in order to get young Andy and themselves to safety. Elizabeth desperately tries to get the truck moving as the undead mariners slowly shuffle toward them. Another tense scene has the fog leisurely drifting toward Stevie Wayne’s beach house which harbors both Andy and his babysitter, Mrs. Kobritz (Regina Waldon). When Stevie herself is pursued by the fog, she reaches the top of the lighthouse and, with nowhere else for her to go, the walking dead creep closer and closer to her.
A second way the film provides scares is through dialogue. As stated earlier, The Fog is a film about storytelling and several characters in the film take their time spinning ghostly tales to other characters as well as to the audience. The chilling effect is somewhat similar to Dr. Loomis’ monologues about the evil living within Michael Myers in Halloween.
The patented Carpenter jump scares are back from Halloween and just as effective; most notably in a scene where Hal Holbrook’s Father Malone suddenly lurches out of the darkness.
Carpenter also uses a variety of spooky images to strike fear in his audience such as the glowing, supernatural fog slowly rising over a hill as well as an eerie wide shot of the silhouetted ghosts partially enveloped in fog, standing still and just staring at their victims-to-be.
Just as he did in Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Carpenter continues to employ the 2:35:1 aspect ratio. This widescreen format combined with Dean Cundey’s unbelievably beautiful lighting (painted with aquatic blues and greens) and Carpenter’s brilliant images/compositions give The Fog not only a bigger budget feel, but more importantly, it infuses the film with a creepy and moody atmosphere that is absolutely perfect for this story; a visual feast of horrific beauty that sets the mood, tells the tale and scares the hell out of you. For example, the shot in which the film’s title appears (the camera slowly rises up a hill that overlooks a lonely beach at midnight) is serene and quite lovely to look at, yet we still feel a sense of foreboding. Other shots which are just as subtle in their building of mood and growing fear, but no less beautiful are atmospheric dusk-to-night wide shots of the town, Stevie Wayne driving down a lonely road with the ocean visible in the background and another wide shot of that same ocean at night. There’s also a scene where the main characters are besieged by Blake and his men while they hide out in an old church. At one point, the ghosts’ decayed arms break through the gorgeous stained glass windows and eerily reach out for anyone they can find. Like the aforementioned shots, this image is stunning, atmospheric and ominous all at once; pure Gothic beauty.
Although scary and gripping on their own, the visuals are helped along even further by The Fog’s magnificent musical score. Just as he did with Halloween and Assault, John Carpenter composes the entire soundtrack and, much like The Fog itself, creates something both beautifully chilling and vastly underrated. It also perfectly fits the story and contributes greatly to the film’s moody atmosphere.
Continuing with audio, the film’s mood is also helped by a wide range of sound effects such as a creaking sign or a barking dog. There are also a few moments of silence guaranteed to cause tension and send a chill down your spine.
Carpenter’s fun stinger sound effects, which never fail to make us jump out of our seats, also return.
The acting in The Fog is top-notch. Adrienne Barbeau shines as Stevie Wayne. She effortlessly goes from being a sexy and mysterious DJ to being an everyday woman fending off a persistent male admirer to finally becoming a frantic and concerned mother without ever once missing a beat.
Jamie Lee Curtis is also very good as Elizabeth; a woman who is the exact opposite of her Laurie Strode character from Halloween. Here, Curtis’ character, who once again survives, is street smart and more assured in both herself and her sexuality (possibly a response to the idea that those who engage in sex in a horror film are punished by death which is something that Halloween was wrongly accused of suggesting), and she delivers another wonderfully believable performance which shows off her great talent and acting range.
The rest of the magnificent cast helps the story along by making us believe the fog is an actual threat. John Houseman completely mesmerizes us with his gripping story of the crash of the Elizabeth Dane; Hal Holbrook is appropriately dramatic as the priest who knows the town’s shameful secret; The always reliable Tom Atkins is solid as the hero; The great Janet Leigh shows why she was a star of old Hollywood and Carpenter veterans Charles Cyphers and Nancy Loomis are both likeable and humorous. Also, Academy Award winning makeup effects genius Rob Bottin (who also did effects for this film as well as for Carpenter’s classic 1982 version of The Thing) is creepy and quite imposing as Captain Blake.
There is one character in the film that doesn’t require the talents of an actor and that is the fog itself. Although it doesn’t have a human form, doesn’t speak and has no emotion, the fog feels like a solid character. There’s a definite presence that we feel whenever the fog is onscreen. This is due to elements such as Carpenter’s score and by giving the fog an eerie, white glow. Carpenter would achieve the same effect a few years later by using similar techniques to bring the ‘57 Plymouth of his 1983 Stephen King adaptation Christine to life.
The Fog’s influences are many. As stated earlier, the film was inspired by the writings of Lovecraft, Poe and Machen, but also by the classic E.C. Comics titles Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, both of which featured stories of innocent victims returning from the grave and seeking vengeance.
Cinematically, the film was influenced by movies such as The Thing (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Quatermass 2 (1957), The Crawling Eye (1958) and The Birds (1963) just to name a few. These influences have been stated endlessly over the past 35 years. However, there is a series of films that I’ve always felt influenced The Fog, but I’ve never heard mentioned by the filmmakers or by critics. The series I’m referring to is writer/director Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead films. This classic Spanish horror series consists of four films that were released from 1971 to 1975 and tell the story of the Satan worshipping Templar Knights who horrify a small town when they begin sacrificing local village girls. The townsfolk perform a little vigilante justice on the knights, but because of their supernatural ties, the Templars return centuries later to continue what they started.
Where these films may have influenced The Fog is, first of all, in the Templar’s themselves. They somewhat resemble the ghosts in The Fog, are a group of many and move very slowly. And that’s not all. In the first sequel, Return of the Evil Dead (1973), there is a town celebration presided over by the Mayor (just like in the second half of The Fog) and all the main characters take refuge from the Templars inside an old church. In the second sequel titled Ghost Galleon (1974), the Templars stalk their victims aboard a creepy, old ghost ship which is covered in fog. The last sequel is 1975s Night of the Seagulls. This one contains a seaside village, plenty of atmosphere and, once again, fog.
On a less important (but extremely fun) note, The Fog is filled with a plethora of references and homages; cinematic and otherwise. Stevie Wayne’s “look for the fog” speech is very similar to the “watch the skies” speech from The Thing (1951). There is a scene shot at Bodega Bay which is a location from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Elizabeth tells Nick that she’s bad luck and that all the strange happenings in Antonio Bay may be her fault (similar to Tippi Hedren’s character from the Hitchcock classic). She then goes on to say, “things seem to happen to me.” Because Elizabeth is played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Carpenter revealed that he gave her that line as an in-joke for the Halloween fans. Darwin Joston, who starred in Assault on Precinct 13, plays a coroner called Dr. Phibes; named after the ghoulish, vengeance-seeking character portrayed twice by the immortal Vincent Price, and the final image of George “Buck” Flower (who plays an early victim) is identical to Janet Leigh’s famous death stare from Psycho.
There are also several characters named after Carpenter’s friends and colleagues such as Elizabeth Solley (an old girlfriend), Nick Castle (a friend and filmmaker who also played the Shape in Halloween), Tommy Lee Wallace (a friend who would go on to direct the extremely underrated Halloween III), Dick Baxter (an old friend as well as a character name from Halloween), Dan O’Bannon (co-writer of Carpenter’s debut film Dark Star), Richard Kobritz (producer of Carpenter’s brilliant 1978 TV movie Someone’s Watching Me!) and John Carpenter & Debra Hill even pop up in cameos.
The wonderfully atmospheric, visually beautiful and downright spooky film has garnered quite a following over the years. On the audio commentary of The Fog’s laserdisc release, John Carpenter himself refers to the film as a minor classic, but I still feel that it is an underrated work which doesn’t get the respect it deserves mainly because it still lives in the shadow of Halloween. This is ridiculous because although it employs several of Halloween’s techniques or, more appropriately, several Carpenter techniques, it is completely different from Halloween in story, mood, characters, visuals and cinematography just to name a few. It’s an excellent, scary and fun film which contains an eerily beautiful mood that hasn’t been captured on film before or since. It has also stood the test of time (unlike the atrocious and already forgotten 2005 remake). Bottom line: If, one rainy night, you’re looking to be chilled by a quality scarefest directed by one of the true masters of modern horror; look for The Fog.
This article is dedicated to the memories of Debra Hill, Janet Leigh, John Houseman, Darwin Joston, Regina Waldon and George “Buck” Flower. R.I.P.