The Fog (1980)
Written by John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Directed by John Carpenter
John Carpenter is a well-known master of horror & the fantastic and in the early 1980s he was doing the best work of his career. By 1980 he’d directed Dark Dark, Assault of Precinct 13, and the film that propelled him to greater heights, Halloween. Two years later, he would make one movie a year for five consecutive years. It began with The Fog. The idea for The Fog came over several years dating back to the early 1970s as Carpenter recalled a British horror film he saw from a child about monsters in the clouds. While visiting Stonehenge while filming in the UK, he noticed the eerieness of a fog that crept over the site. After hearing about a tragic shipwreck off the northern California coast, Carpenter sat down with then-girlfriend Debra Hill and worked out the screenplay.
Antonio Bay, California, is celebrating its centennial when strange things beginning happening at night. Electronics go haywire, car alarms ringing out of control, and cars fail to start. Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) discovers a journal belonging to his grandfather in his church walls. This book tells of an atrocity the founders of Antonio Bay committed, and Malone realizes something is coming for revenge on this anniversary.
Meanwhile, local radio DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) gets the sense something is wrong about a thick fog that’s started rolling over Antonio Bay, strange lights emanating from within. Nick Castle picks up Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), a hitchhiker who helps him investigate when his friends never return from their late-night fishing expedition. Once the anniversary night arrives, it becomes clear the residents are marked for death, and the spirits of those wronged by their ancestors want blood.
I would say this isn’t the best Carpenter film I’ve ever seen, but it is a very tightly plotted and paced horror flick. I was immersed enough in the picture that I didn’t realize how quickly everything was going by, the mark of a good movie. The horror is not overly complicated, and we get a very clear explanation of why this is happening. You can see Carpenter trying to make something a little more mainstream than the slow burn pacing of Halloween. There’s surprisingly little gore, in my opinion. The killers wield hooks, but you don’t see too much blood and guts.
The whole movie feels like it’s paying homage to an older style of horror picture that was lost in the wake of the more gory 1970s fare like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the giallo films. The characters are on the run from spooky killer ghosts like an adult version of Scooby-Doo. Character development is pretty minimal, and I don’t feel that the Elizabeth character has much to do, which is odd after Curtis was a compelling lead in Halloween. She does get to work alongside her mother, Janet Leigh, who plays the townsperson overseeing the town’s 100th birthday.
I have mixed feelings about the final product here. I like that we do not get bloated exposition or flashbacks to give character to the monsters in the fog. Keeping them distant, mute, and deadly helps up the scare value of the movie. However, the human figures are painted pretty broadly too. For instance, I think Father Malone deserved a few more scenes to develop that character. I think he could have been the main protagonist, but he’s there initially and only becomes important in the final act. If you are sensitive to horror and want something with the guardrails on to start, I think The Fog is reasonably tame and something a general audience would enjoy.