Oh THE FOG, even when I don’t feel like watching anything I can still watch THE FOG. As soon as JOHN CARPENTER’s haunting score begins, forget it, I know I’m going to be transfixed until the closing credits float by. It’s just such a splendid ghost story and the atmosphere is so convincingly dank I can actually smell the salty air. (In fact, I feel like if my air conditioner should ever break down I could just put in my FOG disc and it could cool the room with comparable results.) CARPENTER wisely calls forth two of the great gods of ghostly storytelling here, both H.P. LOVECRAFT and ARTHUR MACHEN are given nods, and you can almost sense them looking down upon the proceedings with approval. CARPENTER’s impeccable use of shadow and the widescreen frame are present throughout and there’s a keen sense of place that is uncanny and rare. If it only existed, who amongst you wouldn’t want to take a trip to Antonio Bay?
To me, THE FOG shimmers and glows on all fronts but during a recent viewing, I was particularly impressed by the respectful way it treats its multitude of characters. As written by one of the greatest collaborative horror teams of all time, JOHN CARPENTER and the late great DEBRA HILL, we are shown a symbiotic multi-generational community of equals who all play a believable part in overthrowing a supernatural menace. No character is ever shown as being of lesser value than another and even though one might want to automatically cram TOM ATKINS into the role of “hero,” the truth is, his actions and screen time are comparable to nearly everybody else around him.
If you think about it, this approach is rather unusual in the world of horror. Usually you’ll find some kind of forced drama or conflict between the characters and almost always some folks are presented as “good” and other folks (usually those who are killed) are presented as “bad.” In 1980, while everyone was busy trying to duplicate CARPENTER and HILL’s previous theatrical horror effort HALLOWEEN, JOHN and DEBRA seemed to have been making a great effort to work against their earlier, now more common design. Hell, we’re even given some elbow room to sympathize with the vengeful zombie ghosts causing all the ruckus. You have to admit, the betrayed, leprous crew of the “Elizabeth Dane” do have a valid, honest to goodness beef. Yes, they mean to kill six people but from what we’re shown in the movie, it’s nothing personal.
There is much to be found in THE FOG, I notice new things every time I watch it but what impresses me the most is what’s NOT in THE FOG, how it smoothly twists and snakes itself around genre clichés. This is my favorite type of film, its creators know what they are doing and are committed to telling a story rather than randomly stitching together scenes designed to appeal to its target audience’s base expectations. Let’s say we turn on the lighthouse and take a closer look at what’s NOT in THE FOG:
Young Andy is NOT shown as a precocious brat with his head hypnotized by the latest gadget. He is NOT shown as incapable of sitting still long enough to listen to a story.
Mr. Machen, an older gentleman, is NOT shown as an object of ridicule and scorn. He is NOT presented as crazy or suffering from dementia.
Stevie Wayne is a single mother who is NOT shown as harried or incomplete. She is NOT shown longing for a male suitor.
Dan has a thing for Stevie. He is NOT depicted as a sleazy stalker just because he knows a good thing when he hears one.
Elizabeth Solley is NOT judged for having sex. She is NOT depicted as someone without aspirations or an inner life. The camera does NOT linger on her famous boobage.
Nick is NOT in his early twenties. We are NOT awarded gratuitous visuals of his wash board abs. He is NOT wearing designer jeans. He is NOT a douche.
Kathy Williams is a woman of a certain age in a position of power. Miraculously, great effort is NOT made to depict her as a bitch.
Nancy is Kathy’s assistant, she is NOT shown as an incompetent moron.
Father Malone is a religious man who is NOT painted as corrupt, mustache twirling hypocrite.
Nick is NOT seen as soft just because he cares about the well being of his friends. Elizabeth is NOT shown to be unaffected by death.
This black guy is NOT used for comic relief.
Mrs. Kobritz is a babysitter, she is NOT sixteen years old.
These people are NOT shown to suddenly have incredible fighting skills when encountering zombie ghosts.
Our heroes are NOT depicted as unfazed by supernatural attack.
Blake does NOT talk your ear off.
Father Malone does NOT say things like, “Leper me entertain you bitch!” or, “Church is in session Blake, first sermon is your ass on the collection plate!” during the film’s finale.
The ending is NOT happy. (But it sure is awesome!)
People are NOT always important in horror movies but they’re always important in GOOD horror movies. Am I bonkers for thinking there is a correlation between a filmmaker’s understanding of the people they depict on screen and their level of understanding of those filling the chairs in the audience? THE FOG is laudable for its high regard towards its characters, regardless of age or sex. (Please notice that regard is NOT born from political correctness but from genuine interest.) I don’t mean to oversell you here. in a way, the characterizations I’ve mentioned are merely sketches but they are sketches without condescension or disdain and as far as I can see, that’s menthol fresh.
This FOG also pulsates with an exemplary awareness and reverence toward the past that is NOT hip by today’s standards. This FOG is also NOT too butch to ask its literary influences for directions.
I’ve heard some describe THE FOG as “dated” and perhaps they’re right. It certainly brings to my mind an approach to horror storytelling sadly left far behind (you need only watch the 2005 remake to get a crystal clear view of just how far we have NOT come.) Speaking for myself, I will never NOT love JOHN CARPENTER’s THE FOG, and it will never NOT rank high on my list of all time favorites. What’s in it is amazing and what’s NOT in it is even more so.
I’d take the older, non-wash board abs Nick over today’s version of machismo anyday.
This is wonderful. Very thoughtful and true. I do love that you like so many of the people, even if you only get to know a little bit about them. And I’m always bummed when the babysitter gets it. Let’s face it, watching an older, kindly woman meet her maker is way freakier than some 20 year old bitchy babysitter (not that I don’ t love that!)…
Awesome Unk. You’ve done it again!
What thoughtful, perfect observations. This has always been one of my absolute favorite films. Thank you for writing such a love letter to it!
Unk, great as usual! I love The Fog and I don’t think it gets the respect it deserves. When I heard they were doing a remake, I told Prof VW that they would replace Tom Atkins with some pretty boy. I refuse to watch it. Something I love about movies and TV from the 70s and early 80s is that the people are regular looking. They look like people you know. I really do not like remakes and that is one of the reasons. For example, when Kolchak was remade they changed him to a young, handsome man. What was wrong with Darren McGavin’s look? I joked to my husband recently, if they remade the TV show Cannon they would pick some dude with 6-pack abs. Okay, rant over! Once again, Unkle L, thanks for recognizing the awesomeness of this classic!
You can never go wrong writing a love letter to The Fog! I’ve been a devoted fan since I saw it on the ABC Friday Night Movie back in the day. It’s my go-to movie whenever I feel in need of reminding why I love horror movies (something that happens more and more these days). As soon as Carpenter’s theme comes on, I’m good right up through the final “swish” of Blake’s blade. Awesome post!
Great review. I’ve always felt the characters were under-developed, but agree about them being realistic. Plus, it’s such a great ensemble cast.
In the past I’ve said that this movie gets by on atmosphere and a cool plot device, but you pointed out even more great things about it.
Side note: I always forget Jamie Lee Curtis is in this until I watch it or read a review.
Wow. Just WOW! This is just another truly amazing piece on a classic I thought I knew everything about, but you managed to add something more for me to think about. Very impressive writing and analysis.
I’ve always loved the multi-generational, multi-ethic, multi-whatever stance Carpenter and Debra Hill have used in fashioning their stories and ensemble casts. I admire the respect they’ve always shown for the characters. You’ve point out so many great things here! Kudos x 1million
Well, I guess I know what I’ll be watching tonight. It’s just a narrow shade behind Halloween in my book and that’s only because of my love for the holiday so it’s kind of unfair. The Fog might be a better film even. *Yikes did I just say that!*
Speaking of ghost ships, heading to Wildwood, NJ next week for annual summer vacation. They just built a brand new walk through haunted house called Ghost Ship. They missed a golden opportunity not calling it the Elizabeth Dane.
I agree, there is something so utterly alluring and beautiful about the early 80s. It’s definitely an extension of the 70s, with it’s tight jean glory, and remains kind of earthy, as you said. The later we got into the decade, the more it got stone-washed and mulleted. I adore it, but I thought the last era that truly embraced the femininity of women was the early 80s. There’s something so soft about the fashion and I aspire to it…
Wow, look what you’re getting out the Fog!Awesome!
A very interesting approach to a film discussion. What is NOT in THE FOG is inspired. A sign of a good article or review is that it makes the reader want to re-watch the film. I enjoyed it enough on its initial release but haven’t seen it since. I will correct that.
I loved John Carpenter’s The Fog, but the 2005 version was so bad I almost left the theater. Hollywood needs to wake up from doing re-makes and making more creative horrors like the ones in Fangoria’s FrightFest.
What do you think about these films or remakes in general?
I live in Portland, and every time I visit the Oregon coast I think of Antonio Bay and the Elizabeth Dane. There are a hundred little towns dotting the coast of the Pacific Northwest where you could easily imagine all the events of this film taking place – especially in the winter when the fog can get so thick you can barely see to drive. It is seriously the next best thing to visiting Antonio Bay.
I think even though we are not given an exorbitant amount of information about these characters, we are given what we need to know. Carpenter and Hill really had a gift for this. For example, when Elizabeth gets into Nick’s car and she asks if he’s a weirdo and he says “yes” and then she says “good” it’s like we’re instant friends with them. We recognize that they are unpretentious and they make us comfortable.I think just that little exchange tells us who they are and how they approach life better than say, delving into their pasts might.
I absolutely ADORE “The Fog”- and I ADORED your write-up of it as well. Not to sound like my parents here, but they totally don’t make movies like this anymore. So sad. “The Fog” rocks and will always be one of the best horror movies of the 70’s/80’s. Carpenter and team were at the top of their game here, and it shows. Thanks for such an awesome article! I may have to go watch it now…
Great review of a great movie. BTW you really can visit Antonio Bay. Just drive up the coast on Highway 1 north of San Francisco. Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Point Arean, Gualala. Nobody has ever captured it better than John Carpenter. Except maybe Denis Johnson (Already Dead), and he is a writer not a filmmaker
Just saw the preview for Jeffrey Combs’ Dark House and something about it reminded vaguely of the pirate ghosts in the original Fog. The cgi looks just a little bit better than what was in the new Fog film. I think the film comes out on Aug. 6th for Blockbuster On Demand.
That Fog remake has to be placed in the my top 10 of worst remakes ever. I was a huge fan of the original, and the 2005 film completely went another route with the story. I agree with TurtlinNHurlin on the level that Jeffrey Combs gave another awesome performance with Dark House. Putting The Haunting & Grimm Love in my Netflix queues.
“Not” a bad article at all. It’s great!
Took a trip to Antonio Bay a while back…you can check it here…
The best movie – EVER EVER.