Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Cast: Adrienne Barbeau (as Stevie Wayne); Jamie Lee Curtis (as Elizabeth Solley); Janet Leigh (as Kathy Williams); John Houseman (as Mr. Machen); Tom Atkins (as Nick Castle)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #4
It's pretty much established how legendary John Carpenter is in genre cinema, so there's little point in overturning heavily covered ground already. What's worth repeating, especially as I view his late seventies and early eighties work, is the importance of how classic Hollywood cinema has influenced his work. His later work, such as The Ward (2010), is immensely bland but the golden period which he is beloved for is heavily indebted to slow, atmospheric world building usually pictured by Dean Cundey and carefully managed to pull a viewer into the stories. The first ten minutes of The Fog are completely alien to how most modern horror films set themselves up, particularly its 2005 remake which still haunts me for years onwards for other reasons; a ghost story on a beach establishing the plot, about the ghosts of men wrecked at sea getting their revenge on a coastal town, followed by snatches of different characters going about going about their lives as a series of ghostly circumstances take place at the witching hour. It's the hundredth university of the town and from this night onward through the film, a supernatural fog envelops the region and anyone caught within its prescience is under threat from the ghosts within it.
The film altogether has the tone of a short ghost story in its simple, sharp sense of forboding. Despite a complicated production history involving additional material being shot and the spectre of gorier horror movies of the time possessing it in places, the resulting film feels expertly put together as a classic chiller, bolstered by its short running time and the incredible sense of mood which sends shivers down one's spine. As with Jaws (1975) the coastal town both evokes a quaint and peaceful community with rich personality but also fears of the unknown connected to the sea, ancient lore of the ghosts of the shipwrecked in this case where the malevolent figures, with their shrouded faces and ragged clothes, evoke more the Knight Templers of the Tombs of the Blind Dead films from Spain than the ghosts that would appear over the decades from the eighties. Were it not for the brief moments of gristly death, aspects of the new slasher films Friday the 13th (1980) would bring in appearing in characters trying to escape the ghosts, than The Fog would entirely by closer to the films of Val Lewton, drenched in the environments of fog shrouded sea banks as easy listening jazz plays on late night community radio.
The cast as well adds to the class of the film. There's probably too many characters, meaning the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis as a young free spirit doesn't get as much as she deserves in screen time, but having even small characters like the priest Father Malone played by someone like Hal Holbrook who can add gravitas to exposition is a virtue a lot of horror films would actually benefit from. Curtis, her own mother Janet Leigh as the wife of the town major Kathy Williams , Tom Atkins as the male hero, and people from Nancy Loomis to Holbrook all raise the bar by being interesting in their appearances. The individual who stands out the most, with the most screen time and with a role delicately written for her, is Adrienne Barbeau; exceptionally beautiful, and her voice as the radio host havig been canonised by horror fans, she is also completely believable as a single mother who, in the midst of this supernatural fog, has to turn her concerns in protecting her young son. A simple character as the mother fearful of harm to her son not turned into merely one note but, for a straightforward ghost story, done with character to it , an example like with the best of short form storytelling that simplistic characters don't have to be one dimensional but sympathetic.
In general the reason why The Fog stands out as well as it is, like Halloween (1978) to The Thing (1982), is due to the high standard of quality felt in the film. It explains why the likes of Village of the Damned (1995) are so lifeless in that, closer to his idols of classic Hollywood cinema, Carpenter even though he innovated and was part of the more explicit horror and action genres of the seventies onwards had feet firmly entrenched in the past where the importance of character actors and production style were incredibly important. The result of this, like other American directors who innovated in the seventies but were firmly influenced by older cinema, is that he's able to bring the best of classic Hollywood cinema but invest it with new ideas to create visceral and moody films like The Fog.