I’m a day late with this review but better late than never. Thirty-eight years ago, on Feb. 8 1980, legendary horror film director, John Carpenter, released The Fog, his follow-up to Halloween (1978). A minor hit at the box-office (Box Office Mojo, n.d.), The Fog hasn’t received the same affection or attention as other Carpenter films. Halloween (1978) is rightly held up as a classic of the horror genre, while Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, They Live, and Escape from New York, continue to be praised by critics and fans. The Fog may not be representative of Carpenter’s best work but it’s a fun film that harkens back to the days when you could stay up late and catch this type of film at midnight on a local cable television channel.
Set in the fictional California coastal town of Antonio Bay, The Fog is a ghost story about dead mariners returning from their watery grave to wreak vengeance on the descendants of the town’s founders. In a brief but fun cameo at the film’s opening, British thespian John Houseman tells children a ghost story about the Elizabeth Dane, a clipper ship carrying a wealthy man named Blake and his people, all suffering from leprosy. Hoping to settle near Antonio Bay and form a colony, Blake made a deal with the town’s founders, but greed and disgusted by their disease, the founders lit a fire along a rocky beach on a foggy night, causing the Elizabeth Dane to crash and sink. They stole Blake’s gold and built Antonio Bay on deception and greed. Now, on the eve of their 100th anniversary, the Elizabeth Dane and its crew have returned, covered by a supernatural fog, to punish the descendents of Antonio Bay.
At just under 90 minutes, Carpenter weaves a gripping ghost story that never drags or falters with its tense, creepy atmosphere. The concept of ghosts submerged in a spectral fog is brilliant; it adds to the film’s midnight-movie vibe and also leaves the ‘ghosts’ as shadowy figures, which helps hide the lower budget make-up effects. Carpenter crafts a few ‘edge-of-your-seat’ moments, milking the film’s concept as characters respond to ominous knocks at the door and walk out unwittingly into the swirling mist. The best of these scenes finds a little boy trapped alone in his bedroom as the fog envelopes his house and ghosts come pounding on his door. The film does repeat some of these scares and relies a little too much on horror film contrivances (i.e, a car that won’t start) but it moves along so briskly, and delivers on its scares that its a minor criticism.
Like with most of his films, Carpenter also composed the score for The Fog and I personally rank this one as second only to his work in Halloween. Less intrusive than some of his other scores, Carpenter’s music in The Fog both maintains tension in the film’s quieter moments and ratchets the tension back up as events build to the climax. The Fog is also blessed with an all-star cast of familiar genre actors including Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, Charles Cyphers, and Adrienne Barbeau. Scream queen legend and Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh, also has a small role. Its impressive cast carries the film in those quiet moments elevating above most other horror films.
One of the original criticisms of The Fog was that the film periodically descended into slasher film territory – the more graphic killings felt out of place in what was supposed to be a more traditional ghost story. By today’s standards, the death scenes will seem fairly quaint. I saw the film as a kid and never found the death scenes to be tonally jarring and on subsequent viewings still don’t see these moments as disrupting or undermining the film’s rhythm. The focus of The Fog is still largely on suspense and scares, at which its successful albeit at a more minor level than Halloween.
As it nears 40 year of age, The Fog is a minor entry in the horror genre and it is not among Carpenter’s best efforts, but it is still film that hasn’t lost any of its ability to scare and entertain. It works amazingly well as a B-film ghost story and illustrates that even a master’s lesser works still stands head and shoulders above most other horror films. Look no further than the feeble attempt at a remake that was released in 2005 for proof.