A passable ghost story with an excellent mood and assured direction by John Carpenter, The Fog is impressive in ways that horror movies had forgotten in 1980, while not quite making it by contemporary gore standards. An immediate followup to the smash success Halloween, it may have been an attempt by Carpenter to subtly suggest his horrors - an attempt revised in post production with standard zombie shock reshoots.
In 1979, Cinefantastique magazine posed the unnecessary question of which filmmaker readers preferred, John Carpenter or David Cronenberg. Cronenberg's films were (at the time) exploitative and unpleasant, but each had a fascinatingly sick intellectual idea at its core. Carpenter, on the other hand, was a stylist who built his movies shot by shot, and idolized the laconic surface of Howard Hawks while creating suspense with a building-block technique learned from studying Alfred Hitchcock. But if Carpenter ever had anything to say, it's been hidden among weak stories and derivative ideas: an excellent director, almost every one of his films brilliantly initiates a stock genre situation, sometimes (in a film like Assault on Precinct 13) by sheer directorial storytelling power. But then the ball gets dropped. His typical third act reveals that there's little happening besides gunfire or mayhem, with the stories resolving in action but not in theme or character. Of course there are the happy exceptions, like The Thing, and Starman. Curiously, Cronenberg and Carpenter are such instinctively good directors, that their journeyman efforts in picturizing scripts written by others (Starman and The Dead Zone) are both excellent movies.
This is perhaps the film where Carpenter decided he wasn't an all-purpose genius, the one that convinced him to retreat to more commercial shockers. Very humble in interviews, he scoffs at the idea that he was the new Hitchcock. The Fog was reportedly inspired by seeing a moving fogbank at Stonehenge in England, and Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill originally shot a picture with very little graphic horror. When the result was unsatisfactory, they then scrambled to retrofit the tale with grisly details. In the new DVD docu, Carpenter rattles off the material he added after the first mix, and names practically every scene of zombie-pirate attack.
Carpenter builds his stories with precisely observed details, and in The Fog keeps our interest at a high level - with material that in someone else's film might be considered 2nd-Unit work. His subtle earthquake-ish rumblings are very effective, and the uncanny moment when a driftwood sign trickles water and changes to read "6 will die", is socko stuff. The sense of spatial organization on display goes beyond the director's already celebrated talent for composition, making us fully aware of the relevant topography of the Bodega Bay-like 'Antonio Bay.' His characters are mostly fresh, unforced, and well-cast, and he when he fills a major role with a non-star like Tom Atkins, we accept his choice.
Savant's not automatically charmed by every ghost story he sees, but The Fog has a number of impressive spectral situations, in particular the early assault on the fishing boat. Unlike lesser films, he doesn't yry to create suspense by withholding information. The creepy attack on one fisherman begins with a door opening, a ghost pirate entering, and walking in clear view forward to his prey. There's none of this nonsense of holding on a choker closeup of the victim so long, that a bull elephant with a cannon could sneak up behind him. There are also no meaningless 'gliding monster' POV's: We identify with the victims, not the ghouls.
Jamie Lee Curtis is a relatively minor character, and it's disappointing when her specific presence is more or less arbitrary. Adrienne Barbeau is softer and more pleasant than usual, and has a velvety radio voice that serves as creepy counterpoint to the cleverly-managed phantom fogs.
There's nothing all that wrong with The Fog, except that by 1980 standards, skewed by Romero and Fulci films, its thrills are definitely on the tame side. Fans able to see American versions of the Spanish Amando de Ossorio 'Blind Dead' movies are going to see similarities as well. Carpenter's setup is so intelligent and superior, that it's disappointing when characters and themes do not develop beyond a revenge motif. The killing Fog has unusual talents, like the ability to cut telephone lines. But without more illuminating content, it doesn't become a 'character', as did Poe's House of Usher.
For a while we wonder if outsider Curtis' presence might have a meaning, or a hint at a deeper meaning, as Tippi Hedren's does in the birds. Nope. Hal Holbrook's priest character deduces the mystery and works out the solution basically on his own, in a visually impressive but emotionally shallow scene. Restricted to the surface story, our thoughts wander to practical defenses. When Adrienne Barbeau is cornered atop the lighthouse, we mentally urge her to simply kick out at the very physical pirate pests. The intention seems to be for us to tremble at the mere presence of the phantoms. But they're just too familiar, and there aren't any 2nd and 3rd-act developments to make them more compelling. Carpenter's graphic additions to the film aren't cheap hype, but neither do they take the picture in any interesting direction. I wonder how much less the phantom pirates were shown in his first cut. The inconsistent return of a ghost to attack Holbrook in a stinger shock cut ending, doesn't add to our appreciation of Carpenter's earlier heights of mood & suspense.
MGM's Special Edition of The Fog has a very thorough new docu with focused interviews from the principals, who all seem in good spirits 23 years later. Producer Jeffrey Schwarz adds some cute editorial touches, bouncing dialogue lines off his story points. An original featurette from 1980 is also included. There are galleries of advertising art, stills, and a commentary with Carpenter and Hill that includes a great many fascinating editorial confessions.
The transfer of The Fog is very good. Besides restoring the Panavision frame, the 16:9 enhancement and better-than-adequate bit rates during encoding reduce grain to a minimum, and keep the frequent misty mists and foggy fogs at peak clarity, even on a large screen. The colors are sharp and the audio punchy. Carpenter's sub-Morricone synth noodlings don't add much to the tale, but are nicely recorded. A standard flat transfer is on board as well, for those who want to see The F, or e Fog.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fog rates: