A fair number of film scholars and enthusiasts would agree that the career of John Carpenter began with tremendous success, culminated with his much-loved 1978 scare picture “Halloween,” and has been merely sputtering ever since. I am not one of those people. For me, “Halloween” was a decent yet unremarkable thriller—constantly threatened by some very bad acting—and Carpenter’s track record in the years since, at least through the mid-1980s, only grew more impressive, more interesting, and more enjoyable. Hence I feel that his 1980 ghost story “The Fog” is a step up from the bogeyman fable that made him a household name in the horror genre.
One of Carpenter’s nicest assets as a director is his choice of subtle subject matter. He tells old-fashioned, simplistic stories without trying to make them over into something profound. After all, “Halloween” was at heart just a bogeyman story with some slight touches of Sigmund Freud thrown in. “Escape from New York” featured some social satire, but was predominately a science-fiction spectacle. And Carpenter’s best film, “The Thing,” became so intensely frightening because it understood its base as a ‘who’s who’ monster movie. The same applies to “The Fog.” There is an explanation as to why the ghosts in this story decide to attack a particular seaside neighborhood on a particular night, but the answer is thrown in our laps right away. Even if you axed the movie’s prologue—which Carpenter originally intended—we would learn the motives of these specters before the first hour was up and the big string of attacks had begun.
It would have been all too easy, and perhaps tempting, for Carpenter and his co-screenwriter Debra Hill to try and weave some mock-profundity out of all this, but thankfully, they did not. As a result, “The Fog” wisely steps away from being an hour and a half of pseudo-intellectual nonsense and plays itself with a straight face. And not for a second is it boring.
The narrative bounces between several of the town’s inhabitants, all of whom are represented by very talented actors. “Halloween” star Jamie Lee Curtis takes one of the starring roles and shows a vast improvement in her acting, starring alongside none other than her mother, Janet Leigh. It does seem appropriate; both of these actresses got their start in movies in which they were stalked by deranged killers with butcher knives (Miss Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”) so it must have been a dream come true for Carpenter to put them together. Yet he does not go for the obvious tactic of turning them into cinema pals; they do not even share a two-shot until the final reel. And neither actress is allowed to steal screen time from anybody else; in fact, the only one who comes even close to doing so is the one who was the most interesting: Adrienne Barbeau as the owner of a lighthouse-set radio station, watching and reporting as the big waves of glowing fog wash over her community.
I liked the people in “The Fog” and I liked the ghouls who emerge from the misty walls, but what I enjoyed the most was Carpenter’s visual flair as a director: his insistence on shying from ultra-tight close-ups so aplenty in most horror films, the bluish tint he has applied to the lens, how the camera transitions between light and dark settings, and the way he stages bizarre scenarios. There are a number of ‘what-is-going-on?’ moments in “The Fog,” such as water bleeding from a piece of driftwood before suddenly catching fire, and the director stages everything excellently. He gives special attention to these seemingly inexplicable moments. In these moments, the audience forgets this stuff is foreseeable in a spook-story and joins in with the characters, pondering what is happening and what will soon happen. And when the ghouls do appear, Carpenter uses the fog motif and the distance between the specters and the camera efficiently. He appropriately does not give us too much of the villains, thereby rendering them more effective. Less is more.
On the negative side of the equation, I wish Carpenter and Debra Hill had chosen a straight-forward resolution to wrap up their story. As a matter of fact, they start out with one, only to follow in the footsteps of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” where the peaceful yet haunting conclusion is capped off with an out-of-the-blue shocker. It’s not bad—especially not the way it’s been photographed—it just seems unnecessary. In addition, although the ghosts’ motive for returning to this town a hundred years after their deaths is spelled out clearly, the selection of their victims does seem a tad hazy. Once again, I’m glad the screenwriters did not try to make some mock-profound social commentary out of the whole ordeal, but just another sentence or two to explain who they will come after would have helped some. Basically everything else is just nitpicks: was it necessary to have Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins jump into bed a minute after they meet when the rest of the movie really just presents them as two strangers with a developing friendship?
And one does beg the question: why do the ghosts target clustered individuals behind walls and barriers when there’s a town gathering smack-dab in the open?
So what if it’s not an impeccable masterpiece? I’ve never been one to let nitpicks go too far, especially when my mood when viewing the picture has been predominately positive. In the case of “The Fog,” my mood was overwhelmingly positive; I really enjoyed watching this simplistic ghost fable. Because, once again, it does not make itself out to be anything big, profound, and deep. It just drills as deep into the plot mechanics as it needs to (maybe a tad too shallow, I admit) and lets the director’s flair take control of the entertainment value. It’s not a perfect movie, but I still liked it very much.