The Fog, which premiered on Feb. 8, 1980, might be the most uneven of the films John Carpenter made in the first decade of his career, but it is almost certainly the most visually impressive.
It was Carpenter’s third substantive movie (not counting Dark Star from 1974, which was essentially a student film expanded to feature length). The first, in 1976, was Assault on Precinct 13, a gritty homage to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, in which a cop, a criminal and several civilians have to defend an abandoned Los Angeles Police Department precinct house from a siege by a violent gang. The second was Halloween, from 1978, perhaps the most influential slasher film ever made. Two years later, in 1980, Carpenter chose to make another modestly budgeted horror film rather than chase after the studios and trade control for a larger budget.
The result is The Fog, a tight, fast-paced atmospheric yarn with – as per usual with Carpenter – a unique premise.
The film opens with an old man (John Houseman, in a wonderful cameo) telling a group of kids a ghost story around a campfire on a California beach. This story is of a ship that got caught in a sudden fog and mistook a campfire for a signal fire 100 years ago. Blinded, the ship sailed into the rocks, killing everyone on board. And the local legend has it that when the fog comes in again, the sailors from that ship will rise from Davey Jones’ locker and come to seek their vengeance.
This tale is, of course, a foreshadowing of what’s to come in the movie: the fog rolls into town on two successive nights, the sailors emerge and people die. But it’s also a tale without a protagonist – the sailors are rather nebulous figures, and there’s no real target for their malice. This reflects the main weakness of the film, which is that the script never manages to settle on a central character and instead jibes somewhat randomly from one to another.
Jamie Lee Curtis (the star of Halloween) plays Elizabeth, a hitchhiker passing through town who shacks up with a local man named Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) on the night the terror begins. Adrienne Barbeau plays Stevie Wayne, who owns a local radio station located in a lighthouse, and whose young son Andy (Ty Mitchell) gets separated from her in the course of the action and nearly killed. There’s also a local priest named Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) and a pair of women helping prepare the town’s 100th anniversary party, played by Janet Leigh and Nancy Loomis.
Together, these characters confront the encompassing evil of the fog. Three men on a small fishing boat are the first victims on the opening night of the mayhem, killed by the ghost sailors. Meanwhile, the priest discovers that the story of the shipwreck on the coast isn’t exactly what it seems: the signal fire was set in the wrong place intentionally, and the ship was carrying a crew of lepers, led by a wealthy man.
On the following night, the fog rolls in again — during the anniversary celebration — and this time the leper ghost pirates mean business. They assault the town, eventually trapping most of the main characters in the church, where the real reason for the pirates’ ire discovered, as is the truth of what they’re really after.
Despite the story, the film works because it’s buoyed in every scene by Carpenter’s remarkable flair for staging and, just as importantly. by cinematographer Dean Cundey’s impeccable camera movement, framing and use of light. Cundey also shot Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China for Carpenter and would go on to shoot films for Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and many other directors. Although he received an Academy Award nomination in 1988 for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, like most cinematographers he’s never received the acclaim outside of the industry that he deserves.
Carpenter is renowned for his compositions and ability to create visual tension, and one clearly sees Cundey’s hand in this. Again and again he uses darkness to create negative space on the screen, raising the question in our minds of what’s going to fill that space, and when. He also maximizes Carpenter’s love of strange color palates and odd lighting: the church where the finale takes place features good doses of neon pink, and the fog itself has a bright internal light that heightens its atmospheric menace. All of this combines to evoke the atmosphere of a true ghost story: eerie, threatening, inexplicable and operating on some level just below that of rational consciousness.
Finally, Carpenter also fills the film with a good dose of referential cheek. The character Nick Castle is named after a friend from graduate school who acted in Dark Star, played Michael Meyers in Halloween, and then went on to direct The Last Starfighter, Major Payne and more. One of the characters on the doomed ship in the beginning is named Dan O’Bannon after another grad school friend who starred in Dark Star and went on to write Ridley Scott’s Alien and Paul Verhoven’s Total Recall, in addition to many others.
Legendary special effects maestro Rob Bottin, who worked on everything from Carpenter’s The Thing to David Fincher‘s Fight Club, also has a brief cameo, and the doctor in the film is named Dr. Phibes, after the epochal 1971 British B-horror film The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Add in the fact that Jamie Lee Curtis is acting with her mom, Janet Leigh, who starred in Psycho, and The Fog is a compendium of Hollywood horror and sci-fi history.
Despite his cult following, the magnitude of Carpenter’s early career accomplishment is often overlooked. From Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976 through They Live in 1988 he made 10 films – close to one a year – every single one of which is worth seeing, and a number of which are genre masterpieces. This is a series worthy of the great Golden Era directors whom Carpenter idolized, like Howard Hawks, John Ford and Anthony Mann, all of whom could work fast and never turned their noses up at genre fare. The Fog has a place in that series, and it’s worth remembering because of that.