Monday, August 3, 2009

Carpenter's Tools: The Fog

In retrospect, Halloween was as damaging to John Carpenter's career as it was beneficial. It launched the director from low-budget film school graduate to the next great auteur, but it also forever skewed expectations of the man. Carpenter aspired to be the next Howard Hawks -- in style, not quality; regardless of his considerable skill, Carpenter is far too humble to equate himself with one of the all-time greats -- but the rampant success of Halloween forever labeled him as "the horror guy."

Indeed, Carpenter followed up the slasher masterpiece with The Fog, an entry into that curious subgenre of movies in which mist, fog or some other visual impediment brings with it terrible monsters hell-bent on killing anyone caught in the enveloping smoke. Carpenter has never been a particularly gifted writer (at least in terms of plotting; he's a borderline genius when it comes to writing intentionally cheesy dialogue), and such a rigid type of film offers him little leeway. Supposedly, the small town of Antonio Bay is attacked every 100 years by the ghosts of lepers who were led into rocky waters by the old townspeople, who stole their gold and prevented the establishment of a leper colony nearby. This background is explained in the Serious Tension moment of the show, but I can't understand how they know that ghosts return every 100 years to kill six townspeople when the film occurs on the town's centennial anniversary.

Why would Carpenter leave in such a glaring mistake, especially when he demonstrated with Halloween an admirable refusal to give us more information about Michael Myers than we needed (and all of that came in vague generalities about his pure evil)? Whatever the reason, it reflects the overall laziness of the writing, that same carelessness which pervades all of his films but never started detracting from his films until he moved into the turbulent later stage of his career.

Happily, he makes up for this by displaying all of the talent for creating and maintaining suspense that he perfected with Halloween. The ghosts of Blake and his leper crew return to Antonio Bay to claim six souls as vengeance for the six conspirators who led them to their deaths, and three people die in one fell swoop in the first 15 minutes. That slices the body count in half off the bat, yet the other hour of the film doesn't lag.

It also doesn't particularly stand out, either. The ghosts carry with them gruesome nautical instruments, from long knives to great hooks, and Carpenter shoots their murders with the same level of taste that defined Halloween (yes, you read that right: taste). The engulfing, creeping fog will make you sink your fingers ever so slightly into your seat. Naturally, the movie benefits greatly from Carpenter's minimalistic, electronic score. But it also lacks production values, an inexplicable flaw considering the massive success of the director's previous film.

Worst of all, the actors fail to make a lasting impression with their characters. A shame too, as the cast is more than solid: Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, Janet Leigh and Hal Holbrook all have major roles, but they look decidedly uncomfortable with the expositional, cheesy dialogue. Curtis perfected the scream queen with Halloween, but she only gets two or three opportunities to properly use those powerful pipes of hers.

Still, I quite enjoyed this forgettable piece of genre fun. Halloween contained a few truly perfect shots (the best and most lasting of which of course being the scene where Michael's mask slowly illuminates behind Curtis), and The Fog has some great set-ups at the end. When the fog envelops the home of DJ Stevie (Barbeau) and threatens her young son, the tension is nearly unbearable thanks to some skillful editing and Carpenter's sense of composition. Likewise, the final onslaught in the church lacks any scale whatsoever but feels like a siege by a gargantuan force once the pacing, placement and music mix. These scenes buoy a decent horror film into an above-average thriller that overcomes its many flaws, but only just.


  1. I just watched The Fog and I have to point out an error in your review (which I mostly agree with but overall think it is a better movie than you give it credit for).

    You say Carpenter left in a glaring mistake when the townsfolk know of the every 100 year curse that exists. Well in my viewing of this film, no one knew about it-they discovered it as the film played out. DJ Barbeau figured it out via the missing boat and wooden plank her son found. Stud Atkins pieced it all together through his search for his friend and the radio. Father Halbrook discovered the curse in the book he discovered that day. The rest of the town had no idea of the curse (and presumedly were all killed off by the fog as they were all gathered together at the memorial site).
    Where did you get the idea that they all knew about this curse?

    1. It's funny you say this because lately I've been thinking about how much I undervalued this and a handful of other Carpenters (the other big on is Prince of Darkness, which I flat out panned but is now my favorite of his). I'm looking forward to picking up Shout Factory's release and reevaluating it.

    2. I've always been a huge Carpenter fan but I hadn't seen this movie since I was about 15 (almost 20 years ago)... The last time I saw it it was in full frame on VHS and I hated it which looking back is obvious as I was missing almost half the movie. This time around it was scary, well shot, amazing effects of fog, well acted (of a cast of awesome Carpenter regulars) with character names like Dan O'Bannon and Nick Castle, and an amazing and memorable score by Carpenter. Sure it wasn't gory enough, it doesn't fully make sense and the ending is slightly lacklustre but it's so enjoyable to watch, seems like it would hold up very well to repeat viewings and is better than most other horror movies of its kind that it is the type of movie that will live on and only get stronger as the years go by...

      I haven't read your Prince of Darkness review (and I haven't seen that film in as many years as this one) but I used to love it. I am working my way through Carpenter's films at the moment (which is the first time I have seen most of them in widescreen and the first time I have seen Someone's Watching Me! and Elvis and the first time I will have seen The Ward) and am looking forward to Prince of Darkness, even more now that you say it is your favourite of his. How can it beat Halloween, or The Thing, or Assault on Precinct 13 or even The Fog, I cannot fathom but I can't wait to find out.

      I want to know what you think of The Fog when you watch it again and also I am disappointed that in your complete list of films of Carpenter, there is no review for Elvis...