The Movie Night Diaries: John Carpenter’s The Fog
This time around, The Movie Night Diaries at Where the Long Tail Ends looks at John Carpenter’s 1980 horror film The Fog, a folksy horror yarn about a group of ghostly fishermen returning to exact revenge upon the town that betrayed them one hundred years after their death. This film features Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Atkins, all faces familiar to fans of horror films.
I must admit right off the bat that this film holds a unique sense of nostalgia for me akin to the tickling of a phantom limb. You see, in all of my years of horror film viewing I have never made it around to Carpenter’s The Fog. Until now. The unique nostalgia that this film holds for me stems from the fact that it was the film to watch on Friday and Saturday night sleepovers at the neighborhood kids’ houses. Of course, I was never allowed to watch The Fog or any other horror movie until I was older. When that time came around the neighborhood kids had moved on — no more was The Fog the go-to movie to keep you up late into the night. It had become the Nightmare on Elm Street films and their kin that we went to when we wanted to get the creeps.
I remember with some clarity a morning spent at the community center playing floor hockey and being the odd man out, the only kid in the bunch who had yet to see this movie. My cousins and every kid in the neighborhood sang its praises as the most frightening thing they’d ever seen. I swore to myself that I had to see this film that was frightening everyone so terribly. In the intervening years I must have passed over it a dozen times at the video store, and now find myself watching it for the first time — after it’s already been remade by Hollywood.
While The Fog falls a bit short of the most frightening thing I have ever seen, I did enjoy it. From the opening scene of the grizzly old sailor Machen (played by John Houseman) this film knows what it is and where it’s going. It’s a cinematic take on an old spooky story, the kind that one would hear around a campfire, Cub Scout meeting, or sleepover at a friend’s. Instead of a man with a hook for a hand or somebody waking up in a bathtub filled with ice cubes, the bad guys in this story are members of a group of specter fishermen who float into town within a ghostly, glowing fog that envelopes everything.
The real pleasure in watching this film is discovering just why the ghostly fog and its inhabitants has chosen to return on the eve of the centenary celebration of a small, seaside California town called Antonio Bay. Carpenter and friends spare the audience an awkward moment of exposition in exchange for a slowly unraveling mystery, one that the audience will stay only a step or two ahead of until the truth is finally revealed.
This fine attention to the story’s details also shows in its cultivation of an interesting cast of characters who confront the things lurking in the fog: the drunken town priest, Father Malone; the lone hitchhiker Elizabeth; the sailor Nick Castle; the local deejay Stevie; and the patrician Kathy Williams. All of these characters are developed and they’ve all got a unique and interesting stake in how things will turn out. So often in horror films the characters are just moving targets, caricatures rather than characters, each taking a turn being bumped off to stack the body count. The Fog takes its time with things; it has a deliberate pace and takes care to assure that all of the disparate story elements fit into place. The final product is a neat, brisk horror film that achieves what it seems to set out to do, and that is to appeal to the kid in us by telling a story that echoes the frightening fireside yarns of childhood while still appealing to us as grown-ups and horror film fans.