Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Fog (1980)

John Carpenter must have surely been tempted by the success of Halloween (1978) to follow with something similar, but he chose this moody, atmospheric supernatural piece instead. Drawing on the styles of both Edgar Alan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, The Fog (1980) concerns itself with a shipload of vengeful ghosts who return from the grave to seek vengeance on the coastal town that killed them 100 years prior, using the fog, which the townsfolk had used to lure them to their deaths, as their vehicle of revenge. The Fog is something of an overlooked entry in Carpenter's horror filmography, having been made between Halloween and The Thing, but it's an effective, rich, and old-fashioned ghost story.

The cast who make up the small town of Antonio Bay is a who's who of actors who have worked prominently in the genre and/or with Carpenter regularly. If there is a central character, it's probably Adrienne Barbeau (then Mrs. John Carpenter) as radio DJ Stevie Wayne, who has a young son. There's also Hal Holbrook as Father Malone, Tom Atkins as fisherman Nick Castle, Jamie Lee Curtis as hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley, her mother Janet Leigh as Kathy Williams a fisherman's wife and organizer of the town's 100th anniversary celebration, Nancy Loomis as her assistant, Charles Cyphers as weatherman Dan O'Bannon, and Darwin Joston as pathologist Dr. Phibes.The characters are barely drawn with more than the most basic traits, but the cast give them life, and most importantly they feel like real people in this town. Their collective story is that of a town under siege.

There's very little actual plot in The Fog. The film proceeds at a relaxed pace, beginning with a ghost story around the campfire by a sailor played by John Houseman setting the tone for what's to follow. We then go through various locales throughout the town as unexplained occurrences happen: payphones all ringing at once, car alarms going off for no reason, items in a grocery store shaking and falling off the shelves, and windows spontaneously breaking. It's an eerie and foreboding sequence. By this point, we've learned the story of Captain Blake and the doomed sailors and how it is whispered they return at the "witching hour" (midnight to 1 a.m.), but we haven't learned about the town's culpability in their deaths. We see all these strange things happen and know something supernatural is going on, but at this point, the threat is unmentioned and only hinted at.

From there, the movie cuts between different groups of characters - Stevie Wayne, Nick and Elizabeth, and Mrs. Williams and her assistant - as they encounter different aspects of Antonio Bay's history and the curse of the ghosts until finally they meet during the climax at the town's church to fight off the marauding spirits that are attacking through the fog that has blanketed the town. The exception is Stevie, who remains at her post to warn others of the threat until the ghosts come looking for her.

The ghosts themselves are never seen straight on, always shadowy outlines embedded in the fog. The only close shots we get of them are usually of a hand or two smashing through a window or door or clutching a hook or sword. However, Carpenter is much more effective in creating tension from the environment. Stevie Wayne broadcasts her show from a lighthouse, and we see shots of her driving through wide opens fields and walking perilously down a flight of stairs near cliffs to get there; it's effective at generating a sense of isolation and loneliness. Nick and Elizabeth go looking for a missing ship out to sea, and the ocean has this alienating, slightly threatening touch to it. It's these touches, along with the hints of the supernatural, that give The Fog a spooky feel.

Carpenter also is able to use irony to underscore his trademark anti-authority streak. This cozy little community, we learn, is built on lies and murder, and the church was complicit. During the town's celebration, Mrs. Williams gives a speech about how they work to keep the spirit of their founders alive. Little does she know how accurate and wrong she is

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