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The Fog (1980) – Carpenter countdown #10

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While making a TV movie, John Carpenter was surprised to be offered a two picture deal by Avco Embassy – he apparently hadn't realised that Halloween was breaking records and that he and producer Debra Hill were hot properties. So what to do for the follow-up? Horror, yes, but they decided on an old-fashioned ghost story.

Concept: 'What if there's something in the fog?'

It's nearly midnight and John Houseman is telling ghost stories on the beach to some children. Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of a shipwreck, when a ship in the fog mistook a fire on the beach for the guiding light it was looking for and was destroyed on the rocks. When the fog returns to the bay, the men who drowned will return, looking for revenge. Sleep tight, little ones…

The alcoholic Father Hal Holbrook is startled when a bit of the church wall falls out, revealing the 100 year old journal of his grandfather. 'Midnight to one belongs to the dead' it says. Elsewhere in the town, supernatural things start happening, such as things moving by themselves. Outside the town, Tom Atkins picks up hitch-hiker Jamie Lee Curtis. Suddenly, the truck windows are smashed. Local radio owner and DJ Adrienne Barbeau gets a call from meteorologist Charles Cyphers. There's fog coming, warn the ship out there. She does so, and 'Ha', go the three on board, but then it comes. The fog disables their engine, a sailing ship comes alongside, and with it, the sailors who massacre the crew. The fog then moves west despite the wind blowing east. Meanwhile on land, Atkins is in bed having a post-coital chat with JLC (only at that point do they exchange names!) A ghostly visitor arrives at the door, but goes away as one o'clock strikes.

The next morning, Barbeau's son sees a gold coin on beach, but it is covered by a wave and becomes an old piece of wood, with the word 'Dane' on it. Meanwhile, Janet Leigh is trying to arrange the celebrations for the centenary of the town, and Father Holbrook reads some of the journal to them: a wealthy leper called Blake wanted to move a leper colony near to the settlement, via the ship Elizabeth Dane. To stop this, and to use Blake's gold to build the church and create the town, the grandfather and five other people decided to light a fire in the wrong place so that it would go onto the rocks. Aided by a mysterious fog, it worked. 'We're honouring murderers,' Holbrook tells them. While this is happening, Atkins and JLC are on the overdue ship, where it turns out that the generator is full of water but the deck is dry as a bone. They discover a body when it falls out onto JLC. He's drowned, despite being in a locker. Oh, and his eyes have been put out. As they're returning to shore, the piece of wood Barbeau's son found suddenly starts seeping water, and the writing changes to '6 must die'. While medical examiner Dr Darwin Johnson is talking Atkins about how strange the case is, the body gets up and starts moving towards JLC… it falls down, leaving a '3' mark on the floor, the number of deaths so far.

Come midnight that night, there soon two more deaths (Cyphers and the woman babysitting Barbeau's son). That brings the count up to five and it's time for the final confrontation at the church built with the gold Blake, the sailors and passengers were murdered for.

What’s good: Dean Cundey's cinematography is stunning, especially at night. The daytime views, with the space of the Californian coast and the setting of the lighthouse/radio station, also contrast beautifully with the confined feeling in the night fog. The music is equally good and the effects still work 31 years on.

Most of the cast is fine. Adrienne Barbeau's voice is perfect for radio, Jamie Lee Curtis has the combination of screaming and strength she brought to Halloween, and the support is good throughout.

What’s not so good: While the lines are good ('Fog bank out there?! There's no fog bank out there… Hey, there's a fog bank out there!') there's not much in the way of character development. Despite being co-written with Debra Hill, JLC is the hitch-hiker of male dreams – gorgeous, sleeps with you that night, and sticks around to help save you from ghosts! (Apparently she wanted a different sort of role from being the virgin in Halloween.) There's also the problem of the body count: the ghosts are after six descendants of their murderers, and towards the end they've killed five, so why are they still after at least two different people? Plus why does the body move (apart to go 'boo' at us)? But one of the points of ghost stories is that they don't make sense.

Tom Atkins is a fine supporting actor, but I don't believe anyone thinks of him as a romantic lead. (See the Carpenter/Hill produced Halloween III for another – the only other? – example of trying.)

Music: One of his most atmospheric scores. Parts of it have been reused by theatre and TV shows endlessly.

There's a 'complete score' CD available from a specialist source, but many of the extra tracks are the background jazz on the radio, and it's one for completists only.

Miscellany: It has possibly the highest number of in-jokes in the cannon. Lots of the characters in the film are named after friends (Nick Castle, Dan O'Bannon, Tommy Wallace, Elizabeth Solley) or characters from films (Dr Phibes).

Many of the cast and crew were, or would become, regulars. One actor who wouldn't is Carpenter himself – he has some lines at the start, but this would be the last time he'd attempt to do more than a "Roger that" speaking part.

Partly because the original cut didn't work and partly in reaction to Scanners coming out with its exploding heads, the more explicit horror scenes were added just before the deadline for releasing the film.

He made (his then wife) Adrienne Barbeau smoke, so she'd look more like a Howard Hawks heroine.

Overall: It's still an effective bit of story telling, and definitely in the second tier, but watching it again, I get the feeling it could be overtaken in the list as others move up over the years. Having said that, one of the measures of how good it remains is how much better it is than the awful remake. It still looks and sounds great.

TL;DR A solid ghost story, miles better than the remake

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 4.5/5

Informative commentary with Debra Hill talking about the joys of low budget film-making and effects work before CGI, a look back at the film, a contemporary 'making of', out-takes, trailers, short storyboard to film comparison, and photos.

DVD, Blu-ray, import CD

Written by Ian

June 17th, 2011 at 9:01 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

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