On my last visit to the hallowed halls of Kindertrauma, I caused somewhat of a stir with my admission that Curtainsâ€”and not the more widely-regarded and revered Halloween or Friday the 13th or any number of other better crafted films from the subgenre's golden ageâ€”was my favorite slasher film. It was quite the scandalâ€”pearls were clutched, jaws were left on the floor, and villagers of all ages fled the scene en masse, arms waving and voices shrieking in unison like Bodega Bay's schoolchildren in The Birds. Well, get ready for yet another brouhaha on par with the horror of an acapella chorus of "Risseldy Rosseldy" on a looping reel because I'm about to do it again.
Halloween isn't my favorite John Carpenter film.
I know, I know. But all the holy water and melodramatic exorcism rituals from every bad demonic possession movie combined can't evict this demon of truth from my soul. Don't get me wrong; I adore Carpenter's Halloweenâ€”for both its merits as a classic horror film and its far-reaching genre influence. Plus, it gave meâ€”er, I mean it gave the worldâ€”its preeminent scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis. But as much as I love and appreciate the personification of evil in a mechanic's jumpsuit and Shatner mask slashing his way through leaf-strewn suburbia on its titular holiday, it's Carpenter's next film that captured my horror heart and remainsâ€”to this dayâ€”not only the one film this scary movie enthusiast watches religiously every Halloween but also my favorite horror film of all-time. Quelle surprise!
By now, you know the drill: Five of my favorite things about The Fog that contribute to its lofty ranking in my personal pantheon of great horror movies:
1. Mr. Machen's Fireside Ghost Story: The opening of The Fog is a masterclass in storytelling. From the random scenes of supernatural goings-on across the seaside town of Antonio Bay as the opening credits drift lazily in and out to the gathering of some of the town's youth around old Mr. Machen and a roaring campfire on the beach at midnight, Carpenter sets up his tale of ghostly revenge beautifully. As the late John Houseman (as Machen) recites the 1880 events that led to the purposeful sinking of the Elizabeth Dane, a clipper ship filled with leprosy-stricken colonists looking for a place to settle, the mood and atmosphere of the film is expertly set. Houseman is cast brilliantly here, his distinct, unmistakable voice the perfect vehicle to eerily establish the film's backstory. Even his nautical coutureâ€”bordering on a caricature of the wizened sea captainâ€”lends an added visual element of tonal consistency that serves to further foster a strong sense of mood. Adding to the spooky ambiance is Carpenter's scoreâ€”arguably, his bestâ€”that imbues these early scenes with a feeling of pure, inescapable dread that seems to communicate to the moviegoer, "Sorry, folksâ€”the only out is through." Fun fact: This scene wasn't even included in Carpenter's original shoot. It was added, later, after he and producing partner Debra Hill were dissatisfied with a rough cut of the film.
2. Sandy, the Sassy Sidekick: I know I'm not alone in lamenting the all-too-short acting career of Nancy Loomis. Whether by choice or circumstance, one wishes that her roles in a trio of Carpenter filmsâ€”Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Fogâ€”would have been as strong a career springboard for her as roles in the latter two were for Jamie Lee Curtis. As Sandy Fadel, assistant to Janet Leigh's Kathy Williams character, Loomis proved that she had a clear career path to becoming a memorable character actor. Crisp, efficient, and with a slight projection of boredom that manifested in brilliant moments of deadpan sarcasm, Sandy was the perfect assistant. Loomis plays the part to precision, keeping Sandy sassy enough without crossing the line into satirical stereotype. Her onscreen boss summed it up best: "Sandy, you're the only person I know who can make â€˜Yes, Ma'am' sound like â€˜screw you'."
3. The Lighthouse Setting: In The Fog, the climactic battle with the ghosts of the Elizabeth Dane takes place on two frontsâ€”the old town church where most of the cast converge and the radio station where DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) forges her own solo battle against the risen seamen. Carpenter's brilliance in setting the radio station within the backdrop of a lighthouse cannot be underscored enough. Using the real-life Point Reyes Lighthouse to film many of Barbeau's scenes, the locale lends a genuine sense of isolation that adds to the escalating tension throughout the film. From high atop her vantage point, Stevie can see the titular menace rolling into Antonio Bay and is able to use her broadcasting ability to warn those on the ground. But when those misty tendrils slide over the rocks outside WKAB, spiraling upwards and engulfing the structure in gauzy whiteness that pulsates with the revolving lighthouse beacon, the audience knows that Stevieâ€”physically cut off and aloneâ€”is in for the fight of her life. The lighthouse setting enables Carpenter to execute some of the film's most excruciatingly tense and frightening set pieces, aided tremendously, of course, by Barbeau's bravura performance. Ironically, the creative forces behind the ill-conceived 2005 remake of The Fog opted not to include the lighthouse localeâ€”and that's one of many reasons why that film failed so miserably in this jaded loyalist's opinion.
4. Getting to the Church on Time: There is a sequence at the beginning of the film's third act that is easily my favorite; I call it "The Foggy Roadway Shuffle." As members of the ensemble begin to understand that something sinister is befalling Antonio Bay on its centennial anniversary, they tune into their car radios to find pre-climactic battle Stevie in full-tilt panic mode. She's tracking and broadcasting the advance of the fog into Antonio Bay, and the audience is treated to expertly executed scenes where vehicles stop short and catch the beginning wisps of fog in their headlights as characters take note of street signs before jerking steering wheels hard left or right and tearing off in another direction at Stevie's disembodied radio guidance:
"It's moving faster now, up Regent Avenue, up to the end of Smallhouse Road. It's just hitting the outskirts of town. Broad Street...Clay Street. It's moving down Tenth Street. Get inside and lock your doors. Close your windows. There's something in the fog! If you're on the south side of town, go north. Stay away from the fog. Richardsville Pike up to Beacon Hill is the only clear road. Up to the church. If you can get out of town, get to the old church."
Those scenes are fraught with tension that both escalates and palpates as Carpenter's pounding score jolts with electronic urgency.
5. Convergence of the Ensemble: While poor Stevie Wayne is left to fend for herself high above Antonio Bay on the roof of her lighthouse radio station, the rest of the ensemble converge at "the old church." It's a marvelous sequence with Janet Leigh and Nancy Loomis arriving right behind Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis, who have just rescued Stevie's young son, Andy. (We won't discuss the raw deal poor Mrs. Kobritz got.)
Leigh's Kathy Williams, fretfully: "It cut us off!"
"Where is it?" asks Atkins' Nick Castle.
"Right behind us...in the driveway."
Once inside, the requisite barricading of doors and windows begins, while Leigh strongarms Hal Holbrook's inebriated Father Malone (a direct descendant of one of the original conspirators who doomed the Elizabeth Dane and her passengers to their watery grave) into reading from the journal he found at the outset of the film. Before you can say, "Hey, is that Captain Blake's lost gold there in your walls?", the church is surrounded by fog and besieged by the leprosy-ridden crew of the Elizabeth Dane. Some fantastic visuals here as gnarled, waterlogged hands break through backlit stained-glass windows. Lots of hair-grabbing and screaming cast members yanked backwards toward broken windows as Father Malone finally figures out the answer to their conundrum and makes haste to set the past straight. There's a kinetic energy and choreography to these scenes that just adds crackle and momentum and ratchets up the suspense exponentially.
It is, of course, also a real treat to see Curtis and Leigh together in these penultimate scenes, the second of three onscreen appearances they'd make before Leigh's passing in 2004. (The first was an episode of The Love Boat that aired in November of 1978; the third was Halloween: H2O in 1998.)
The Fog had a production budget of about $1 million, which included Carpenter's wise choice to shoot in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen to give the essentially low-budget production a big-budget feel. With reshoots and added footage, final production wrapped at around the $1.1 million mark. Someone behind the scenes had a lot riding on the success of Carpenter's high-profile follow-up to Halloween. In an unprecedented move, Avco Embassy spent another $3 million (three times the film's production budget for those keeping tally) exclusively on advertisingâ€”television and radio spots, print ads, and even the placement of fog machines in the lobbies of select theaters where the film was screening. The strategy worked. The Fog was released on February 8th, 1980 to mixed reviews but robust box office, eventually taking in a $21.3 million domestic haul.
For me, The Fog represented Carpenter's vision and narrative mastery at its best. He would come close one other time in his impressive but modest career with another ensemble pieceâ€”1982's The Thingâ€”but his time spent in Antonio Bay was a pure love letter to the old-fashioned ghost story.