Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Ten Days of Terror!: The Fog (1980)

Film: The Fog
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

One of the reasons I’m fascinated with horror movies is that for whatever reason they seem to attract really good actors. Take, for example, John Carpenter’s The Fog. Okay, it’s got b-movie standby Adrienne Barbeau and Jamie Lee Curtis a few years after Carpenter made her famous with Halloween, but we also get Hal Holbrook and Janet Leigh and John Houseman. That’s impressive for a film that had a budget of around $1 million.

The Fog is a movie I’ve seen before and it’s one that I was looking forward to seeing again. Even when John Carpenter’s movies suffer from low budgets, he’s an interesting filmmaker who tends to make better films than his budget would normally make possible. Sure, there’s some cheese in his movies sometimes, but this is a guy who can produce some good scares without much in the way of money, and especially in his early years, was more than capable of putting together a film that is, if nothing else, entertaining as all hell.

The town of Antonio Bay, California, is preparing for its 100th anniversary with a celebration and a new statue honoring its six founders. What isn’t known by the townspeople is that Antonio Bay was created on a foundation of conspiracy, murder, and greed. We start with Mr. Machen (John Houseman) actually relating this story as a campfire tale to a group of local children. According to Machen (and reality, we soon find out), the town elders lured a ship to shore, causing a wreck and killing everyone aboard.

Precisely at midnight, a fog rolls in off the ocean. This is no ordinary fog, though. It contains the angry spirits of the men killed in the shipwreck who have returned to claim six victims to take the place of those who originally conspired to wreck the ship. The fog is first noticed by the local weather bureau headed by Dan (Charles Cyphers), who tells local disc jockey Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau). Stevie alerts a ship out in the fog, but this happens too late—the fog overtakes the ship and the three men on board are slaughtered.

Around the same time, a local named Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) picks up hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis). The fog seems to attack them as well, but they make it back to Nick’s place. Simultaneously, the local clergyman Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) discovers his grandfather’s journal hidden inside his church. The journal tells the story of exactly what happened in Antonio Bay 100 years previously, a story that doesn’t sit well with him or with local town leader Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh).

Everything comes to fruition the next evening during the town’s 100th anniversary celebration. The fog rolls into town again and the angry ghosts do their best to track down three more victims to settle the score against the town and its founders’ descendants.

The Fog is a good example of exactly what can be done with a limited special effects budget. Carpenter manages to create a great deal of tension and fear with the use of a fog machine and menacing shapes. With a little more of a budget, Carpenter almost certainly could have made the creatures in the fog a lot more interesting. They’re better when they are merely dark, hulking shapes. When they sport glowing red eyes, which should have been even scarier, it comes off looking cheap. It’s a shame, too, because this effect damages what was to that point a good, effective spook tale.

This was Adrienne Barbeau’s first cinematic film, the first project she was in that wasn’t made for television. She made a career for herself in Carpenter’s films for the first half of the ‘80s (they were married, after all), and went on to be something of a scream queen for much of the rest of her career. The Fog offers a good look as to why. In addition to being easy on the eyes in a feathered hair-and-cleavage/early ‘80s way, she plays a solid damsel in distress who isn’t afraid to fight back. We’re pretty sure we’ll get good work from Janet Leigh and Hal Holbrook, and John Houseman’s couple of minutes on camera are good as well. Barbeau demonstrates that she could work a B-movie like a pro in her first outing. It’s also interesting to see Jamie Lee Curtis playing a role similar to the one she does in Halloween, but more sexually mature and self-assured.

A lot of what makes The Fog work as well as it does is that it plays on a particular fear—that the sins of the father can and will be revisited on the children. The people of Antonio Bay in the story are certainly the recipients of the benefits of crimes of their ancestors but are not guilty of the crimes for which they are punished. It’s a good fear to play on—that we may be one day held responsible for something we had no part in. I’ll even go so far as to say it plays on the idea of original sin in a very clever way.

Truthfully, I probably like The Fog a little more than it deserves. But it’s a dandy little horror movie made in earnest and played completely straight all the way through. Carpenter and his actors have the courage of the convictions of the story and their characters. With better effects, it would be a true horror classic. As it is, it’s still a damn fine film.

Why to watch The Fog: Solid spook story with a great cast.
Why not to watch: The effects, especially on the monsters, are low-rent.


  1. I think that I like The Fog more than it deserves too, but I feel that way about a lot of Carpenter's work. There's just something fun about it, and you rarely feel manipulated. Plus, he does so much with a limited budget. Also, the synth tracks!

    1. Yeah, I didn't mention the classic Carpenter soundtrack, which is always a bonus reason to watch one of his movies.

      You're right about the manipulation, too. He plays things straight with the audience and that's a huge positive in his favor. He's all about entertaining the audience, and more often than not, he pulls it off.

  2. Ghost stories depend on atmosphere and this movie delivers that with the seaside town, the radio station and the fog effects. You said it well, when the spooks become more tangible, the effect is less scary and more cheesy.

    1. Yeah, and it's really too bad. This is a case where "less is more" would add probably a half star to my overall rating.