Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review: The Fog (1980)

Hal Holbrook as Father Malone in The Fog, John Carpenter's underrated 
supernatural revenge thriller.  

I am a major John Carpenter fan. He is an enormously talented and consistent genre filmmaker whose string of 1970s and 1980s films, including Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and They Live (1988), establish him as one of the key figures of the Hollywood Renaissance. However, due to his somewhat lower budgets and propensity to stick to "low" genres like horror, action, and science fiction, he often gets short shrift in accounts of this uniquely fertile period in American filmmaking.*

Carpenter's revenge-of-ghosts thriller The Fog was a somewhat troubled production, requiring extensive reshoots late in the process and receiving mixed reviews upon its release in early 1980. But it fared okay at the box office and is by no means despised, just somewhat overlooked, especially in comparison to the bigger hits that bracket it.

I am a pretty big fan of The Fog, rating it my third or fourth favorite Carpenter film overall, behind Assault, The Thing, and Halloween. I feel great love for the Carpenter / Kurt Russell collaborations Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, yet I confess that I re-watch The Fog far more often than I do either of those two pictures. I probably even re-watch it more frequently than I do Halloween these days.** Why do I enjoy The Fog so much? Let me explain.

Darwin Joston, who played the second lead in Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, makes a cameo appearance as medical examiner Dr. Phibes in The Fog

Like The Thing, Carpenter's 1982 career masterpiece, The Fog is a true ensemble film, and both the specific individuals involved and their onscreen performances here are absolutely superior. We're talking about Carpenter regulars Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis, and Adrienne Barbeau, plus legendary performers Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, and John Houseman making impressive late-career appearances (though the latter only appears in a very brief cameo, essentially introducing the film). As if that weren't enough, Carpenter himself makes a cameo in front of the camera as church handyman Bennett, something he rarely ever does. His line delivery is not terrific, but it's neat to see him in there. And his early scene with Father Malone is the only one in the film in which the performances (specifically Carpenter's) are anything less than stellar.

Indeed, like Jaws 2 or other films of the 1970s, The Fog's more relaxed moments of character development -- which it is unafraid to embrace at length, allowing the movie to "breathe" in ways few post-1980s mainstream genre films manage -- are especially good, and feel especially "real." I know the word "real" is an extremely subjective, slippery, and historically contingent term to use in reference to complex storytelling media like movies. All films are fiction films, and none -- not even documentaries -- represent true, lived reality with particularly great fidelity. So maybe the adjective I'm looking for here is "lived-in," an appearance of comfortable, easy familiarity that connotes psychological depth and emotional richness using only a few briefly sketched details. The best example of this from The Fog (though there are many, including every conversation between Nancy Loomis and Janet Leigh) is the scene between Nick and Elizabeth at Nick's house in Antonio Bay.

One of my favorite scenes in The Fog: Nick (Tom Atkins) and Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis) discuss her drawings and their lives in a wonderfully natural and intimate sequence. 

This naturalness or lived-in-ness carries over into the film's brilliant use of locations, especially the lighthouse from which Stevie Wayne's radio show broadcasts nightly. Carpenter's use of actual northern California exteriors really pays off in The Fog -- the film looks like few other Hollywood productions do solely on this basis. The choice to shoot at least partially in northern Cal subtly evokes that other uncanny thriller associated with the region, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). By saying this I do not mean to compare The Fog to Vertigo in terms of artistic accomplishment, emotional impact, or overall quality, for in all these areas, Hitchcock's film is superior. I simply mean to point out that Carpenter uses his locations very well. They lend a visual richness and depth to The Fog.

Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) hikes down the stairs to her lighthouse radio station. This exterior was shot on location on the northern California coast. 

The Fog also does a lovely job paying homage to other films and narrative traditions that have come before. As I've said, The Fog's scenery vaguely reminds me of the locales of Vertigo: Antonio Bay evokes the highway leading to the redwood forests and Father Malone's church substitutes for the Spanish mission. Beyond that, Janet Leigh's presence in this film obviously recalls Psycho. The film's climactic showdown in Father Malone's chapel, with our ensemble of heroes fighting off murderous ghosties coming in through the windows, is surely a deliberate callback to similar scenes in Night of the Living Dead. And Stevie Wayne's concluding admonition to "Look for the fog!" is a direct echo of The Thing from Another World's final line, "Watch the skies!" Lastly, The Fog's whole central narrative arc about vengeful, supernatural creatures emerging from the sea to kill a bunch of clueless townspeople evokes, well, every scary story about hook-handed murderers you've ever heard around a campfire.

Indeed, Houseman's opening pre-credits vignette, depicting just such a story being told to children around a campfire, makes clear that The Fog knows it is treading well-worn narrative ground here, revealing that its main purpose is to have us sit back and enjoy the ride while it offers us an occasional scare accompanied by a nudge and a wink. I think that this knowingness, the film's touch of intentional camp, is one of the central pleasures to be had in viewing The Fog.

Sandy (Nancy Loomis) and Kathy (Janet Leigh) discuss the curse that has fallen upon their town with the gloomy, inconsolable Father Malone.

Along this line, the film's greatest triumph is the casting and performance of Hal Holbrook as Father Malone. In contrast to the scenes with the rest of the cast, none of the scenes involving Malone feel "lived-in" or real, but rather hyperbolically melodramatic and symbolically overdetermined. If everybody else in Antonio Bay is going about their daily lives in a relatively pedestrian way, Malone feels like he has been dropped into the proceedings from the set of a histrionically overcharged morality play. However incongruous this may sound as I write it, trust me: Malone's every scenery chewing moment is absolutely delightful. Malone is both the moral center of the town (and the film) and the most entertaining single element to be found in The Fog.

The only elements that compete with Malone for sheer entertainment value are some of the juicy murders committed by the film's verbally reticent sea-ghosts.

[Note: This next paragraph contains SPOILERS so if you want to avoid them, skip down past the screenshot of the Antonio Bay coastline.]

As Halloween aptly demonstrates, John Carpenter knows how to stage thrilling, horrific-but-not-too-gory death scenes. As with Halloween, in The Fog there are relatively few actual killings (only six people die) but most of these folks' final moments are pretty memorable. The best and most brutal deaths are the first ones, on board the ill-fated trawler Sea Grass, but my personal favorite killing is that of over-confident, wisecracking weather reporter Dan (Charles Cyphers) -- the buildup to that particular death is priceless. And as with the little girl murdered by gangsters early on in Assault on Precinct 13The Fog demonstrates that Carpenter is unafraid to brutally kill off innocent, good-hearted, sympathetic characters we care about in order to raise the stakes. The deaths of Dan and Mrs. Kobritz are the best examples of this.

Mrs. Kobritz's last stand. 

Antonio Bay at twilight, an example of The Fog's top-notch scenery and cinematography and a signal that "the coast is clear" regarding SPOILERS in this review. 

Discussing The Fog's killing scenes brings to mind the film's one possible weakness, the element that motivated its eleventh-hour reshoots and serves as a key criticism for its detractors: its somewhat inconsistent tone. Most of the explicit parts of The Fog's murder scenes were added late and feel more slasher-ish than uncannily ghost-like. The aforementioned character-development scenes, like those between Nick and Elizabeth, feel more like they belong in Hal Ashby's Shampoo than they do in a John Carpenter-directed horror film. Contrasting with both of these more "realistic" elements are the supernatural, glowing fog and the ghosts it brings with it, which are uncanny and creepy but not truly very shocking or scary. For some viewers, these three different tones may not cohere well or add up to anything particularly impactful by the film's last reel.

Yet for me, The Fog's disparate elements weave together well, aided by Father Malone's relentless hammering of the vile motivations behind the revenge plot and the film's frequent, highly adept use of cross-cutting to suggest simultaneity and thematic linkage between its various story strands.  

In sum, The Fog is a glorious mishmash of casting choices, genre conventions, and film references that somehow jells in a way that really works for me. Is it the scariest ghost story you'll ever see on screen? No, not by a long shot.*** Is it John Carpenter's best film? No, not that either. But is it full of self-aware pleasures, superb cinematography, (mostly) lived-in performances, and a few fun scares? Absolutely. Is it worth your time? I'd say so.

Father Malone sez: "We're all murderers!"

Bonus afterthought: I have never seen the 2005 remake of The Fog and never plan to -- you're joking, right? 

UPDATE 8/30/2015: This io9 list names The Fog as a "devastatingly beautiful" horror film.

UPDATE 5/25/2016: Enjoy Guillermo Del Toro's appreciative series of tweets about John Carpenter.

* By Hollywood's standards, "low-budget" means around $6 million or less. Carpenter's Halloween was made for $325,000 and The Fog was reportedly made for approximately $1 million. For more information about the Hollywood Renaissance, see my review of Bonnie and Clyde.
** Halloween is a big movie for me, because it is the film my younger brother used to lure me into horror film fandom in the first place, and it is surely the John Carpenter film I have seen the greatest number of times by far. It will always maintain a special place in my viewing history and my heart, even if there are other horror films (such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Videodrome) and John Carpenter films (especially Assault on Precinct 13, my very favorite) that I enjoy more than I do Halloween. It may also be that once I saw Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974) and realized that Carpenter stole most of Halloween's innovative visual ideas from that earlier slasher, my appreciation for Halloween was somewhat diminished.
*** That distinction surely belongs to Kairo (2001, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa) or maybe The Innocents (1961, dir. Jack Clayton). 

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