Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Fog (1980) - An Atmospherically Great Ghost Story

Two years after the phenomenal reception to ‘Halloween’ one of the most successful independent films of all time John Carpenter’s next big screen outing would be this terrifying exercise in chilling atmosphere. It encapsulates a constantly creepy, nerve shredding intense, mean spirited, suspenseful ghost story built upon a hugely entertaining B movie premise. Made with such style on a budget of just an estimated $1 million shot entirely using the director’s trademark anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen format it looks anything but a low-budget horror feature and achieves an epic look.

‘The Fog’ opens like Halloween with a simplistic yet atmospherically effective haunting piano musical score again composed by Carpenter. As a quote from the last two lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘A Dream within a Dream’ poem appears “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” this non-diegetic soundtrack is then accompanied by the diegetic sound (diegetic meaning sounds that exist in the reality of the film’s world) of a ticking watch. Fading in the theme music gradually disappears replaced by a ghostly wind and we see a close-up of that ticking watch - a gold pocket one hanging on a chain against a night setting. As it dangles around and we see the back of it and there is a flickering reflection of a fire visible. As the watch dangles back around the camera then pans left and lingers on a group of young boys huddled around a campfire. The camera then returns to the close-up of the pocket watch facing front and then suddenly a left hand appears and abruptly closes it and the ticking stops. As soon as the watch closes, the camera goes to a close-up of the pocket watch’s holder an elderly sailor Mr Machen (John Houseman). He goes onto speak a highly memorable monologue of a campfire ghost tale and John Carpenter’s score creeps back in:

11:55, almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before 12:00, just to keep us warm. In five minutes, it will be the 21st of April. One hundred years ago on the 21st of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot in front of them. Then, they saw a light. By God, it was a fire burning on the shore, strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks, the hull sheared in two, mars snapped like a twig. The wreckage sank, with all the men aboard. At the bottom of the sea, lay the Elizabeth Dane, with her crew, their lungs filled with salt water, their eyes open, staring to the darkness. And above, as suddenly as it come, the fog lifted, receded back across the ocean and never came again. But it is told by the fishermen, and their fathers and grandfathers, that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark, icy death.” (bells ring distantly)  “12 o’clock, the 21st of April”.

As Machen finishes his spooky story, the camera then pans up from his close-up into darkness. We see the first opening credit of the title sequence and the camera keeps on going until it rises up over a hilltop to reveal a long-shot of the ocean and Antonio Bay’s beach with Carpenter’s theme music prominent supplemented by the eerie sound of gusts of wind and we see the title ‘John Carpenter’s The Fog’. This prologue literary introduction scene not only explains part of the film’s backstory in a ghostly campfire tale within a ghost story movie but it also perfectly sets the mood and tone for the entire film. This is not half bad for a scene filmed after principal photography had wrapped up. Carpenter was not happy with the short 80 minutes runtime and just felt that the whole movie did not work. He added this superiorly effective pre-title sequence, shot new scenes and re-shot others making it around 10 minutes longer, scarier and gorier (much like he did later with ‘Halloween II’ in 1981 in order to compete with the slasher competition). 

The title sequence is concerned with introducing us to the film’s cast of characters and showing us some supernatural goings on in a prelude to the horrific events that follow. This is a montage of scenes set during the sleepy town’s quietness of night. During this with Dean Cundey’s excellent long lens shots with careful attention to detail, we see freak occurrences happen as the dormant evil begins to rise. Objects start to shake, lights and TV’s turn on, an armchair moves from one side of a room to the other, car engines all turn on simultaneously as do all the payphones etc. While all this is going on, we hear the sexy voice of Antonio Bay’s local late night radio DJ Stevie Wayne (John Carpenter’s then wife Adrienne Barbeque). Her son appears in that campfire scene and later finds a piece of wood on the beach belonging to the Elizabeth Dane that sets itself on fire while in Stevie’s lighthouse radio station. 

The first shot after the title is an establishing one of the church from where we hear the distant sound of the bells as it strikes midnight. In the interior of the church introduced to Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) we witness the first of the strange happenings. A brick falls out of place in the priest’s office where he finds a journal hidden inside the wall belonging to his grandfather Patrick Malone. In a later scene when Malone is meeting with the town’s centennial celebrations organizers Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh star of the original ‘Psycho’ and mother of Jamie Lee Curtis) and Sandy Fadal (Nancy Loomis) he reads to them the shocking revelation of the town’s founding:

"December 9: Met with Blake this evening for the first time. He stood in the shadows to prevent me from getting a clear look at his face. What a vile disease this is. He is a rich man with a cursed condition, but this does not prevent him from trying to better his situation and that of his comrades at the colony. December 11: Blake's proposition is simple, He wants to move off Tanzier Island and re-locate the entire colony just north of here. He has purchased a clipper ship called the Elizabeth Dane with part of his fortune and asks only for permission to settle here. I must balance my feelings of mercy and compassion for this poor man, with my revulsion at the thought of a leper colony only a mile distant. April 20: The six of us met tonight. From midnight until one o'clock, we planned the death of Blake and his comrades. I tell myself that Blake's gold will allow the church to be built, and our small settlement to become a township, but it does not soothe the horror that I feel being an accomplice to murder. April 21: The deed is done. Blake followed our false fire on shore and the ship broke apart on the rocks off Spivey Point. We were aided by an unearthly fog that rolled in, as if Heaven sent, although God had no part in our actions tonight. Blake's gold will be recovered tomorrow, but may the Lord forgive us for what we've done.”

Inter-cut with this scene we see two other of the movie’s protagonists searching a trawler that went missing the night before. This is Fisherman Nick Castle (super cool Tom Atkins) and a hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Curtis) who he picked up that night and shagged when the disturbances started to happen. This includes a very well timed jump scare echoing one from ‘Halloween’. Aboard the boat were three of Nick’s fishermen mates one of whom is the husband of Kathy (Leigh). That night after “12 o’clock, the 21st of April”, “from midnight until one o'clock” is the sequence that explains their disappearance. These first three deaths of the film’s six kills are substitutes for the six conspirators who caused the deaths of Blake and his crew. Although not so here, a novelization adaptation by Dennis Etchison implies that other than Father Malone a direct decedent of one of the conspirators the other five are as well. Etchison’s take on this was used in the atrocious remake that shate all over cinema screens in 2005.

The murder and fright set-pieces are extremely tense containing the forever presence of the fog and are atmospherically enhanced by the heightened part of Carpenter’s score. The kills executed with merciless callousness are disturbing and the sight of Blake’s motley crew of vengeful phantom lepers is frightening. They are B movie monster types rising from their watery graves in the fog with their ghastly site concealed by darkness stalking and hacking away at their victims. Most of these scenes consist of these walking dead from the bottom of the sea unnervingly knocking on doors of their intended victims with their sharp implements of death. 

The third act is energetic on the edge of your seat thrilling stuff. Stevie (Barbeque) is alone in the lighthouse at night and has to fight off the malevolent spectres as they break in and trying to warn people of the danger of the fog as it returns to wreak havoc on Antonio Bay. She gets out a plea of help on the radio to anybody who can rescue her son from impending doom as a babysitter in her house looks after him. Nick and Elizabeth respond to this while driving along and trying to escape the fog and after as do Kathy and Sandy retreat to Father Malone’s church for a climatic confrontation with Blake and his motley crew.

‘The Fog’ (1980) is one of my favourite John Carpenter movies right after ‘Halloween’ (1978), ‘The Thing’ (1982) and ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ (1976) respectively. Although commercially successful upon release and it received more favourable reviews than not it is not held in as high regard as those previously mentioned titles. It is however in my opinion one of Carpenter’s greatest works. It is a brilliant film in its own right and is better than anything he made after ‘The Thing’. He made some solid efforts after 1982 as well: ‘Christine’ (1983), ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ (1986), ‘Prince of Darkness (1987), ‘They Live’ (1988), ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ (1995) etc. All of these are damn good flicks. If any of you younger readers had the misfortune of seeing the God-awful remake first and have yet to see this underrated absolute classic then I urge you to do so. It is one of the best-crafted ghost stories ever committed to celluloid.

**** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

1 comment:

  1. Rob Bottin himself played "Capt. Blake" at the end...