Monday, March 4, 2013

John Carpenter: The Fog



Blogger’s Note: When I first started this retrospective, I always had my eye on The Fog, for it is probably the most popular John Carpenter film I had yet to see. Crazy, I know, but the film had always eluded me, so I’m more than thrilled to have finally rectified this particular blind spot.

By the time The Fog had come out in 1980, Carpenter was on a bit of hot streak: he had seen success in Europe with Assault on Precinct 13, and had had major success in both American theaters (Halloween) and television (Elvis). It made sense that his next theatrical film would be a horror movie; after all, Halloween at that time had been the highest grossing independent film, and so it made sense for the auteur to return to the horror genre for no other reason than it seemed like a profitable idea. Indeed The Fog was a hit for Carpenter (the film cost only a million dollars to make and made over 21 million at the box office), but I have to say: it falls short of being in the upper echelon of Carpenter’s filmography. The film is a wonderfully told ghost story filled with atmosphere (thanks to Dean Cundy’s great cinematography) and dread and impressive set-pieces — it has all of those things in spades — and another great Carpenter music score, but there’s something that just isn’t right about the execution of the film’s ending, specifically in how it deals with its antagonists: ghost pirates (or as I prefer to see them as: zombie pirates) out for revenge. There’s so much in The Fog that is tremendously executed and effective that I can see why some would claim it as one of the filmmaker’s best films — calling it a masterpiece of the horror genre in the process — and I don’t dispute that a lot of the elements in The Fog work brilliantly and show the master in fine form, but It certainly falls under the oft-used expression, “a flawed masterpiece.”



But I don’t want anyone to think that I think The Fog is a bad movie. Perhaps I just need to revisit it again soon — getting more familiar with its beats — after coming to it so late. This particular blind spot has always bothered me as an ardent horror fan, so I admit that I may have had too high of expectations for the film in my head. Yes, The Fog is really, really great. But the more I think about it, the more I think about that ending, and how it just didn’t work for me at all. Oh, but there’s so much to admire in this film, so let’s focus on the positive for now.

The film’s premise is a simple tale of revenge; the kind of story told ‘round a campfire or something found in the EC Comics* that so greatly influences Carpenter’s work. And in fact, around a campfire is how the film opens. Mr. Machen (John Houseman) sits around a campfire as some children eagerly await his spooky tale (this scene was added after Carpenter showed a rough cut of the film to the producers; the director claimed that the movie just didn’t work without this prologue). His tale is one of revenge and takes place in the sleepy coastal town of Antonio Bay (a nice homage to Hitchcock’s setting for The Birds, Bodega Bay). The town is preparing for a centennial celebration that will culminate in the unveiling of a statue that we can only assume is important because Janet Leigh is there to head up the proceedings. At the witching hour, the fog begins to roll into town, and people begin to die. The reason for the killing spree: Why, zombie pirates seeking revenge, of course!

You see, the whisky-swilling town priest, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), stumbles upon an old diary that explains that six of the founders of Antonio Bay deliberately sunk and looted a ship and stored the gold in the church. The collective guilt of the town (unbeknownst to all but Father Malone) acting as the catalyst for the zombie pirates’ revenge is really basic slasher film stuff; this is the equivalent of the old “prank-gone-awry-victim-seeks-revenge-at-class-reunion” kind of premise seen in many a slasher film. Carpenter fills out the rest of his story with the requisite characters: the aforementioned Janet Leigh plays Kathy Williams, the woman who is practically running the celebration; Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis plays Elizabeth, a hitchhiker picked up by Nick Castle** (Tom Atkins) — the two, of course, encounter some strange goings-on (like all of the windows in Castle’s truck shattering) and then sleep together; and the most important character in the film, Stevie, the local DJ (played by Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau. All of these characters (aside from Stevie) end up together in the local church (where Father Malone is still drinkin’ away) in hopes of staving off the zombie pirates.

The premise is appropriately goofy for the way Carpenter introduces us to it (campfire tale), but continues to show consistency in the kind of character dynamics and suspenseful storytelling that interests Carpenter. Here is yet another film that adheres to the Hawksian idea of getting maximum tension from a story out of a simple premise: a group of people in tight quarters under siege from some kind of outside menace. The only problem with this in terms of The Fog is that it’s primarily a film interested in how we hear horror rather than see it, and so a lot of the film’s pleasures are aural rather than visual.  The final moments in the church with the majority of the main characters locked inside doesn’t work nearly as well as the moments with Stevie, isolated in her lighthouse-turned-studio, frantically broadcasting to the town that, “there’s something in the fog!”

So, Stevie is really the most important character of the film because it is through her that film gets its tension from — she’s basically relaying the ghostly events to the town of Antonio Bay the same the children as listening to the story during the film’s prologue. By listening to The Fog, it is easy to see that the film is much more effective and much, much scarier than the images we’re seeing on the screen. There are some wonderfully surreal moments, my favorite being when a piece of driftwood begins seeping salt water and then explodes; it’s such a wonderfully nonsensical moment that feels like something the Italians would do (Fulci in particular). By valuing the ethereal over the visceral, it allows the viewer to really take pleasure in the sounds of the film. Like the way the fog makes a disquieting noise as it descends upon Antonio Bay; the way Carpenter juxtaposes the jazz music on the radio station with the horrific events happening in the town; the way Carpenter’s music is impeccable in its subtleties, never overbearing but always driving the tension; the pounding on a door; the random shattering of glass; the retelling of bottles; the doom that the crackling of electricity portends as the power goes out around Antonio Bay — these are all the kind of “things that go bump in the night” tricks we expect from an old British horror film or something produced by Val Lewton, and it works brilliantly here at evoking dread.

In one of the film’s standout scenes, Stevie, who has a view of where the fog is heading (one of the really brilliant things about the lighthouse set-piece is that she is so isolated from everything that’s happening all she can do is report what the fog is going over the radio) sees that it’s heading towards her house where her son is. Fearing the worst, Stevie pleads to anyone in the town to save her son. As Nick and Elizabeth race towards the house, listening to Stevie on the radio, we see the fog begin to engulf Stevie’s house and the babysitter watching after her son is soon dragged into the fog and gruesomely murdered. But it’s gruesome because of the setup not because of gore. Like he did in Halloween, Carpenter keeps the violence off camera. His zombie pirates, oddly enough, are a little more brutal than his equally unrelenting Westworld-like killing machine The Shape. It seems odd in what basically amounts to an old-timey ghost tale for the ghosts to kill so violently. When the poor old lady babysitter peaks her head out the door (after a rapping, rapping and tapping, tapping) and is dragged into the fog, it’s a truly shocking moment.

Conversely, at film’s end, Carpenter removes the mystery surrounding his zombie pirates and ruins the goodwill he established in keeping his camera out of the fog for the previous 70 minutes of the film. This is where the “flawed” part comes in. The ending of The Fog is botched; I don’t think there’s any way around that fact. Carpenter cross-cuts between the radio station being invaded by two zombie pirates (in a fantastic scene of tension that is one of Carpenter’s best moments put to film) with the rest of the zombie pirate gang invading the church. It is here that Carpenter lost me. Even though I think The Fog is pretty great, it bothers me so much that Carpenter cross-cuts between the two scenes that represent what is great (Stevie) and what is not-so-great (Father Malone) about the film. I should note: I certainly don’t blame Holbrook, who has a lot of fun with the limited role (allow me a moment to talk about the cast: Curtis and Atkins and Leigh are all fine, but they're not given a whole to do thanks to some pretty thin characterization, particularly Curtis who is depressingly forgettable here). No, the cast isnt't to blame here; it’s in the execution of those final moments. 

While Stevie is being chased to the tippy-top of the lighthouse, Carpenter keeps cutting back to Father Malone confronting the zombie pirates, who can now be clearly seen and apparently have glowing red eyes. When the zombie pirates take the gold cross from Father Malone, it’s a rather silly moment that shifts the film’s entire thesis on terror through sound to focusing on the visuals — and the visuals don’t even begin to hold up their end. Again, this only underlined and highlighted and italicized by the fact that Carpenter keeps cutting back to the very thing that made The Fog so great: Stevie and the lighthouse set-piece. The moments where all we see are arms and hands trying to get Stevie as she sits atop the lighthouse are really top-notch. And then Carpenter cuts back to the group in the church and we lose the tension.

I understand why he did this. Carpenter, being a screenwriter as much as a director, wanted some kind of explanation for what was going on. But it’s also proof of more tinkering from Carpenter. Like he did with adding the prologue, Carpenter (not happy with the initial cut of the film) realized that his film was missing something that gave it that extra shock, that little push it needed for it to be a scarier film. So, he went back and added some of the more violent (again, not gory, just violent) moments where we see the arms of the zombie pirates killing their victims in the fog. And certainly this doesn’t take away from Dean Cundy’s atmospheric cinematography (he’s two-for-two now with Carpenter, he also shot Halloween, as he utilizes the widescreen frame to great effect once again), Carpenter’s brilliant use of sound, Carpenter’s tight editing (despite the choice to cross-cut his most exciting set-piece with his most banal, Carpenter’s film is a brisk 90 minutes that goes by with ease), Adrienne Barbeau’s performance, or the fantastically eerie set-pieces. But what it does do — what it does take away from the film — is remove its claim as one of Carpenter’s very best films.

Finally, to wrap this piece up, there is the issue Carpenter has with the Lewton philosophy of making horror films. Lewton’s philosophy of “suggest-don’t-show” was made famous to cinephiles who knew nothing of Lewton or Jacque Tourneur in Vincent Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful where Kirk Douglass and Barry Sullivan must make a low-budget horror film entitled Doom of the Cat Men. The interactions between Douglass’ producer character and Sullivan’s director character show the two coming up with the idea that to keep the audience scared (rather than laughing due to the ridiculous cat costumes the actors were going to wear), they should keep all of the horror in the shadows (“what’s scarier than dark!” proclaims Douglass’ character) relying instead on the viewers’ imagination than silly costumes. As stated in my piece on Halloween, Carpenter didn’t have much regard for the way Lewton did things. Again, I find this odd since it seems like a lot of what Carpenter does so well is keep things in the margins or off screen. For Halloween, the influence for keeping The Shape in long shot was based on on a shot from The Innocents that really stuck with Carpenter. The scene is of a group of ghosts standing across a lake in long-shot, and it was the idea that it was hard to read the details of the menacing entities that made such a lasting impression on Carpenter. Carpenter, in recent interviews, kind of scoffs at the idea as being the “arty” way to do horror.

As a fan of both atmospheric horror and visceral horror, I usually find myself being more unnerved by the former. Whether the director gets this effect via silence or long-shots or keeping the antagonist shrouded in darkness, I think the “less-is-more” philosophy is such an effective tool for a horror director to use.  Here, even though he begins by veiling his zombie pirates in the eerie fog, it becomes a bit disappointing that by film’s end Carpenter decided to be as detailed as he was (really, it’s the glowing red eyes that bums me out). Even the film's early promotional poster sell it on the basis that, "What you can't see won't hurt you. It'll kill you!" (seen in the poster at the top of the post and re-uploaded below). But look at the following posters/cover art images and tell me which movie you would rather see:




Look at the evolution of these images. The first poster is the most enticing to me. The second poster has the right feel but is a little less ambiguous. The third "poster" is a bit of a cheat because it's DVD cover art, and really, let's be honest: most cover art is terrible unless it has that little Criterion "C" in the upper left corner. The final image is not a poster (another cheat, sorry) but is often used on book covers and the like; it really seems like the go-to image of Carpenter's film. So, four promotional images, each one more revealing and less imaginative than the one before it. The DVD cover removes any kind of exploitationy feel the two US theatrical posters have, but it at least has that eerie green and refrains from illuminating the eyes unlike the final image. But it's the simplicity of the first poster that I love so much, that makes it so enticing, because it tracks with the simplicity of Lewton's philosophy and the simplicity of The Fog's best moments: there are two people in the fog in that first poster, but I had to squint for a second to make out the image in the doorway. 

By showing us the zombie pirates with red eyes aglow (because he could and believed he should) rather than implying their presence (like he had throughout by only showing them in longshot, shrouded in the fog) it takes out all of the wonder — the eeriness — and turns it into something almost laughable; it literalizes the very thing that within this world of a ghost story should remain abstract and ethereal. Had he stuck to Lewton’s philosophy, I think The Fog would be a lot higher on my list as one of the best films Carpenter has made. But, that’s the way Carpenter wanted to do it. He feels that if you have a monster worth showing, and if you can still scare your audience with that monster (since everything is “just rubber” as he claims), then that is the sign of a good horror director (this will especially come up when I get to The Thing). So, we can see why he dislikes employing Lewton’s philosophies even if The Fog feels, at its core, quite Lewton-esque.

As it is, it’s a flawed atmospheric horror film that really feels like a missed opportunity. But, missed opportunities notwithstanding, it’s such a pleasure to watch something so finely-tuned just build and build (aided by the fantastic sound-mixing), hitting on all cylinders along the way; The Fog has such a great rhythm to it. And even though the ending doesn’t live up to the first 70 minutes of the film, The Fog is still a great, lean, fun, atmospheric horror flick. This film was another financial success (and critical, too) and proved again that Carpenter was a valuable asset to studios: a director who could work with small budgets and make good profits. Carpenter was offered his highest budget (6 million) with his next film, Escape from New York, which would reunite him with Kurt Russell, kicking off a decade-long collaboration that produced some of the best work of either man’s career.

* Useless trivia, part one: Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau, the two best performances in The Fog, don't appear in any scenes together; however, they would appear two years later in the George Romero/Stephen King homage to EC Comics (specifically Tales from the Crypt), Creepshow, in the episode entitled "The Crate." Tom Atkins also appeared in the film. 

** Useless trivia, part two: Carpenter prefers to work with a small group of people and create a family like atmosphere on the set, and as a way of just havin' some fun, he'll sometimes name his characters after people he knows (prior to this film, he used Nancy Loomis' (Assault on Precinct 13) name for a character in Halloween). Some of the character's names in The Fog may look familiar: Nick Castle (friend at USC and played The Shape as well as co-wrote Escape from New York), Dan O' Bannon (star and screenwriter of Dark Star), and Tommy Wallace (Co-Editor/Production Design on Halloween and The Fog and director of Halloween III).  

10 comments

  1. I remember not being too crazy about this film when I first saw it and it was only after several years and viewings that I warmed up to it. Now, it is probably one of my fave Carpenter films. Go figure.

    I think that you did a great job outlining what works and what doesn't with this film and you can pretty much tell where the reshoots came in to play. Originally, Carpenter set out to make a Lewton-esque atmospheric horror film but with the rise of graphic slasher films (which he ironically helped usher in), the studio put pressure on him to add some more gore - hence the more obvious shots of the zombie pirates and some more violent contact between them and their victims (I'm thinking of the fishermen on the boat).

    However, it is one of those films that I love dearly in spite of all its flaws.

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    1. Yeah, that may be the case with me. I loved the first 70 minutes or so, but I just couldn't get into that ending. I couldn't understand how something so atmospheric could turn into something kind of goofy by the end. But, maybe I won't be so hard on it when I watch it again in the future now that I know what's coming.

      And yeah, it's funny that Carpenter essentially went in and added "scarier" parts which were really just an excuse for his zombie pirates to come off as more violent than scary. Yes, it may have been the studio, but what I find more interesting is that Carpenter -- always a stickler for his films being his films -- would be so willing to go in and re-shoot things. Although, from the many interviews I've seen and read with Carpenter, he definitely has the mentality that "I'm getting paid, so I'll do what they want" on a lot of his movies.

      Again, I am fascinated by Carpenter's dismissal of Lewton's philosophy on horror. Carpenter did the same thing with the Halloween sequel, re-shooting a lot of it because it wasn't "scary" enough; however, a lot of what he re-shot was just generic slasher stuff and low on the atmosphere that made his original film so effective. Ironic, indeed.

      Thanks for the comment, J.D.!

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  2. I've been following this director retrospective since its start. But, like you Kevin, I've just discovered The Fog this week! Well, it was the retrospective and I read your post right after I wrote mine. Well, yours is excellent and I couldn't compare mine to yours.
    But we kind of agree on many elements especially on the ending and the flaws of the film.
    Thanks for bringing such an interesting light on the career of Carpenter.

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    1. Thanks, Michaël! I read your piece, and I really appreciate the kind words and plugs for this retrospective. Much appreciated! But yeah, we're pretty much aligned here with how we view The Fog.

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  3. This is one of the essays I've been most excited about since you announced a Carpenter retro, and that was without even knowing that you hadn't seen it. And you do not disappoint, sir.

    It's a hard one to grapple with, right? So much is going so well, and still, both times I've seen it, at the end I have the most profound sense of disappointment. But Adrienne Barbeau is truly excellent, and it has atmosphere like nobody's business. Your evolution of images rather brilliantly gets at the heart of what's going on to make this such a difficult entry in his filmography.

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    1. Thanks, Tim! Yeah, it's amazing how it loses almost all of its momentum by the end. The atmosphere is some of Carpenter and Cundey's best work as a team. And, yes, Barbeau is fantastic. I honestly didn't remember her from anything other than a bit of a shrill performance in Creepshow and, as crass as it sounds, her cleavage in Escape from New York. But she's great here, reporting all of the doom that is settling down on the beach town.

      As bummed as I was by the ending, I wouldn't be surprised if this is one that I return to multiple times for something like a Halloween party. It just has this great, spooky atmosphere that would seem to make for a not-too abrasive horror film experience for those that aren't that into the genre.

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  4. "Blogger’s Note: When I first started this retrospective, I always had my eye on The Fog, for it is probably the most popular John Carpenter film I had yet to see. Crazy, I know, but the film had always eluded me, so I’m more than thrilled to have finally rectified this particular blind spot."

    Blog responders note: I too have not seen this film. How is that possible (and I've even seen the limp remake)? Just netflixed it and bumped it to the top of my queue. I shall return.

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