The Fog (1980) – Directed by John Carpenter – Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Houseman, Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook.
When you watch a lot of movies (as you might have noticed, I do), you can sometimes run the risk of seeing too much of one film in another. That said, when watching John Carpenter’s THE FOG, it’s pretty easy to see his influence people like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarrantino, specifically as it relates to the way they construct a movie like FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, which is one-half set up as we simply get to know the characters, and then one-half action conclusion.
THE FOG is constructed in a similar (though not identical) manner; Carpenter spends nearly an hour of his film setting up the last half-hour of action. There’s a few hints of horror early on but the main characters are kept largely out of harm’s way. Windows shatter, mysterious shadows knock at doors, and a brick in the wall jumps off the wall, but these things more to create a mystery for the characters to solve rather than to provide some massive fright. For the most part THE FOG is content to take its time to build up its characters and set up its mystery so when the supernatural fog starts to roll in, people understand that it’s a very bad thing and appropriately freak out.
Watching THE FOG now, it’s sort of amazing how anachronistic it’s structured compared to contemporary horror and action films. THE FOG is not a roller coaster; it’s a section of roller coaster perhaps, as we spend lots and lots of time making that slow climb to the top and then have one big drop to the bottom after we’ve crested. Personally, I love THE FOG because Carpenter does such a great job introducing and developing his characters. By the time the fog starts rolling in to Antonio Bay, I actually cared enough about these characters to understand why they were reacting the way they did; this is critically important, because as much as everyone is afraid of the supernatural fog and the 100-year old ghosts, they all have individual fears and quirks, too. These aren’t just random people getting whacked for our enjoyment; they have real lives and fears and dreams that are interrupted by a supernatural fog and a band of ghost lepers.
Out-of-towner Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a young girl on the road to nowhere. She’s a talented artist but she’s drifting – she’s old enough to know that where she was isn’t where she wants to be, but young enough to think hitching to get somewhere is a good idea. When Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) picks her up, she tries to play experienced, but Nick quickly catches her in a mini-lie that reveals her to be far less world-smart than she claims. They hook up, but Carpenter doesn’t sensationalize the sex or draw out the seduction. In their first scene together Nick picks her up, they start to chat (which feels more functional than seductive), and then the windows shatter in Nick’s truck. The next time we see them is later on in bed, post-coital, and there’s a knock on the door, which causes Nick to have to get out of bed because 1. it’s his house, and 2. because he’s the kind of guy who lets the woman stay in the bed while he puts his pants on and deals with the interruption. We know what’s waiting for him on the other side of the door is a creepy ghost man in the fog, but he doesn’t, so there’s little tension generated for the characters, but a good amount for us.
It’s a really well developed sequence by Carpenter – from pick-up to knock-at-the-door, we see that Elizabeth is a young woman physically, but still making that transition from girlhood to womanhood on an emotional level. In Nick, she finds a solid, older man who’s looking to be important to someone. Both of them have emotional holes that the other can fill, and the exploding truck windows simply bring this into clearer focus for them. Carpenter gives us all of this information but he doesn’t bludgeon us with it; in the 2011 cinematic landscape, THE FOG almost comes off as high literature.
The other center of the film is Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), who runs the town’s radio station from the lighthouse. Stevie is a fantastically conceived character; from her position high above town she has the best view of the fog’s actions and in her position as the one and only DJ, she’s the Voice of Authority for the townspeople. In that last positioning, she’s both of the town and apart from it. She has a voice-only relationship with the local weatherman, and relies on an older woman to watch her son, Andy, while she’s at work.
Andy likes to play down at the beach and he finds a gold doubloon that turns into a piece of wood with the word “DANE” carved into its surface. The Elizabeth Dane is the heart of the mystery and I like how Carpenter doles out the mystery in disconnected pieces – we get a feel for the whole story but the townsfolk do not. Andy finds the “DANE” driftwood, but to him and his mother, it’s just driftwood. It’s Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) who learns the full story when finds a journal his grandfather wrote 100 years ago and then stuck in the church’s wall, but he doesn’t tell this to Andy or Stevie. Andy’s head is already filled with ghost stories from the previous night, when Mr. Machen (John Houseman) told him the tale of the Elizabeth Dane, but to Andy it’s just a story. Nick and Elizabeth find the first dead body out on the missing boat when a water-logged man falls on top of Elizabeth. It’s only when they get to the church at the end of the film that the players are able to piece everything together.
Stevie takes that block of wood to work with her, and it first leaks saltwater and then explodes into flame. A ghostly voice comes across the radio that promises revenge, and the “DANE” etching on the driftwood becomes “6 MUST DIE” before changing back. Antonio Bay survived a 100 years earlier because the town murdered members of a leper colony that had come seeking refuge. The lepers had asked for permission to build a colony a mile away and the town’s leaders agreed, but then betrayed the lepers by building a false fire on the night of a heavy fog, which caused the leper ship to crash into the rocks and sink. The six town founders kept the lepers’ gold and founded their town.
The current day is the 100th anniversary of the town’s founding, so the ghosts of the leper ship have come back to kill six townsfolk as revenge. Stevie sees the fog coming in and pleads with someone to go save her son because she can’t get through the fog to get him before the fog envelops her house. Nick and Elizabeth rescue him and then Stevie’s radio voice implores everyone to get to the roads the fog hasn’t taken. The fog is herding them all to the church, however, for the final showdown. Father Malone, Nick, Elizabeth, and Andy are joined by Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) and her assistant. Kathy has been the big organizing force for the anniversary celebration, and her husband is missing (he was on the boat that endured the fog’s initial attack), so she’s caught between what she knows of the town’s history (as Father Malone told her, “We’re honoring murderers”), her love of the town’s present, and her missing husband.
Father Malone bears the largest guilt over the actions, and takes the church’s gold cross (made from the lepers’ gold) to offer himself up as a sacrifice so the six, century-old murders can be properly avenged. Nick interferes and saves him, pulling him away from the gold cross and the ghost lepers. The ghosts takes the cross and disappear and the fog recedes back out onto the water.
Except the ghosts’ presence was more about revenge of life than recuperating stolen gold, so after everyone thinks everything is swell, the film’s last beat has a small patch of fog return to the church, where the lepers’ leader beheads Father Malone with a sword.
THE FOG is a quietly strong movie that emphasizes strength of story and character over shocks and monsters. Everyone gives a solid performance, but Hal Holbrook’s haunted, guilt-driven Father Malone is the character that will stick with me.