After the apt prefacing Poe quotation: “Is all that we see or seem/ But a dream within a dream?”, The Fog opens with John Houseman as an old sea-dog telling an eerie tale to a group of wide-eyed children sitting in the flickering circle of light cast by a camp fire. “The opening,” enthused Monthly Film Bulletin, “is as stunningly effective as anything John Carpenter has done to date.”
Houseman then recounts the legend of the Elizabeth Dane, a ship whose drowned crew and passengers, lured by six wreckers onto the rocks at the Californian coastal town of Antonio Bay during a thick fog, will return with the fog in 100 years’ time to exact vengeance. Exactly a century later, on the eve of centennial celebrations planned by a committee headed by Janet Leigh, a series of bizarre events unfolds. Adrienne Barbeau, who operates the local radio station from an old lighthouse, warns a trawler of worsening weather, but it is caught in a sudden fog and all three crew members, including Barbeau’s husband, are killed by spectral seamen.
The next day, Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis, a hitchhiker he has picked up, see one of the dead trawler-men return to life briefly and priest Hal Holbrook discovers his grandfather’s journal in the church. From it, he learns that his grandfather was one of six founders of the community who wrecked the Elizabeth Dane and stole its gold to make the church’s crucifix.
The centennial celebrations get under way and Barbeau realises the fog is moving aqainst the prevailing wind. And something horrible happens to forecaster Charles Cyphers as the fog envelops his weather station… When the power station inexplicably blows up the now understandably panicked citizens converge on the church. Five people have now died, including Barbeau’s housekeeper Regina Waldon – and, as the vengeful living dead advance, Holbrook offers himself, with the crucifix, as the sixth victim…
Carpenter had named Halloween’s psychotic killer ‘Michael Myers’ as a tribute to British film distributor Michael Myers, who had very successfully released Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. The Fog found Carpenter continuing his homage to past collaborators. The character played by Tom Atkins was named ‘Nick Castle’ after the man who portrayed Michael Myers (and later directed Tap), and the screen name of Charles Cypher’s weatherman was ‘Dan O’Bannon’ who, in real life, was Carpenter’s co-writer (and actor/ special effects collaborator) from his first film, 1974’s Dark Star.
“Like the best ghost stories, the film is enjoyably scary,” wrote Cinefantastique. It is a prime shocker which fits in exactly with Carpenter’s own definition of the much-maligned genre. “Horror films,” he says, “are just fabulous escapism. You can really just go in and forget all your problems.” He doesn’t waste any time in creating stark, sustained suspense. The mise en scene delivers a series of sharp well-timed shocks and Carpenter also ensures the tension is vividly potentiated and rarely lets up until the well-constructed climax.
Originally, The Fog was to have depended almost entirely on mood and atmosphere for its effect. But, said Carpenter, “We went back and added the visceral shock. Had this not been a fantasy, it (our original plan) might have worked. But it was a miscalculation on my part. We’ve come a long way since Val Lewton. My commercial sense told me something was missing. I don’t mean to put down Val Lewton. I just came to a point on The Fog where I said, ‘They have seen Alien, Halloween, Phantasm, and a lot of other movies. If my film is going to be viable in the marketplace, it’s got to compete with those.’
Originally I was trying to compete only with Val Lewton movies – very understated horror with a brooding atmospheric feel to it. But if you released Isle of Dead today (1980), I don’t think it could compete because it doesn’t have those visceral shocks.” After an initial screening, Carpenter was given money to shoot some additional scenes, notably the title sequence and the sound effects were redone to excellent effect, and noted Carpenter, “the changes amount to less than 10 per cent, but what a difference.”
USA / Avco / 91 minutes / 1979 Filmed in Metrocolor and Panavision
Writers: John Carpenter, Debra Hill / Cinematography: John Carpenter, Dean Cundey / Production Design: Tommy Lee Wallace / Producer: Debra Hill / Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Houseman, Tom Atkins, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers