Sunday, October 3, 2010

John Carpenter Week: The Fog

“It was very shocking to go from a movie that was as easy to make as Halloween to a movie that seemed to be simple on the surface when you read it and that was in the end a much more difficult film to pull off. It was quite a humbling experience.” – John Carpenter

After the phenomenal success of Halloween (1978), there was a lot of speculation as to what John Carpenter would do next. A sequel? Another slasher film? He confounded all expectations by working in television on a movie-of-the-week entitled, Someone’s Watching Me! (1978), and a mini-series biopic (1979) about Elvis Presley, starring a then-up-and-coming Kurt Russell. His next proper feature film would be an atmospheric ghost story entitled, The Fog (1980). At the time, it was considered an odd choice for Carpenter as that particular sub-genre was not all that popular or commercially successful. After all the good will he enjoyed with the underdog status of Halloween, the knives were out when it came to The Fog as he faced criticism for conducting reshoots to add more gore. This was done reportedly because the studio was not happy with his first cut of the film. Critics savaged the end product as betraying its own logic and for not being all that scary. It underperformed at the box office, especially in comparison to Halloween. However, for me, The Fog has only improved over time, despite its flaws, and deserves to be rediscovered and reconsidered as one of Carpenter’s better films.


The film opens with a tell-me-a-scary-story prologue that Carpenter would use again in Big Trouble in Little China (1986) as an old man (John Houseman) tells a group of children about a small clipper ship known as the Elizabeth Dane that was beset by a thick fog many years ago. The ship’s crew saw a light and mistook it for a lighthouse and crashed into the rocks. All the men aboard perished. It has been said that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the ship’s crew will rise from the depths and will exact their revenge on the ones that led them to their deaths.


And with that appropriate mood setter, Carpenter proceeds to introduce the more significant inhabitants of the town. There’s the alcoholic pastor Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) of the local church that harbors a horrible secret. He finds the diary of his deceased grandfather with a rather ominous entry that reads, “midnight ‘til one belongs to the dead. Good Lord deliver us.” Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) is a sexy late night disc jockey whose show runs for an hour starting at midnight, which just so happens to be the time when the fog appears and the attacks happen. There’s Dan O’Bannon (Charles Cyphers) who uses the weather reports to flirt with Stevie. They’re two disembodied voices that will probably never meet. Meanwhile, Mayor Williams (Janet Leigh) is busy organizing a celebration for the town’s centennial with the help of her assistant Sandy (Nancy Loomis). Finally, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) picks up a female hitchhiker named Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis) on the way into town.


As Antonio Bay celebrates its 100th anniversary, not so coincidentally, the fog has decided to return and with it the crew of the Elizabeth Dane. Their first victims are three fishermen on a trawler. Carpenter does his best Val Lewton imitation as he uses shadows and the darkness to create an oppressive mood of dread as the three men are quickly murdered. Nick is friends with one of the men and once he discovers their bodies, decides to look into their murders with Elizabeth in tow. The Fog actually starts off as a mystery as the protagonists try to figure out why the crew of the Elizabeth Dane have come back and what it is they want. We learn that the town was founded on greed and now the past sins of their forefathers are coming back to haunt them.


The Fog is a master class on how to create an ominous atmosphere through cinematography and musical score. Carpenter teamed up again with director of photography Dean Cundey, whom he worked with previously on Halloween. They make great use of the widescreen frame, like the shot of the camera looking down the many steps that lead to the lighthouse where Stevie broadcasts her radio show. You really get a sense of how remote the location is. There’s also a creepy shot of an overcast sky with the fog slowly encroaching on a dock in almost monochromatic colors. The fog takes on an otherworldly look thanks to a glowing effect that Carpenter employs in order to reinforce its supernatural attributes. Cundey’s lighting is particularly effective in making the fog sequences so creepy. It can’t be overstated just how important his contributions were to the films he made with Carpenter.


There are all kinds of small, but memorably unnerving moments, like the mysterious piece of driftwood that Stevie’s little boy finds and that spontaneously leaks sea water only to then burst into flames and yet shows no signs of damage. There’s a scene where an apprehensive Elizabeth is alone in a room with the corpse of one of the fishermen and we see the body stirring slightly under a white sheet in the background while she stands in the foreground unaware of what is happening. Then, Carpenter cuts to a close-up shot of a hand reaching out from under the sheet and grabbing a scalpel, all to the filmmaker’s own unsettling minimalist musical score. Another spooky moment is a shot of the fog rolling in at the beginning of night. It glows white in contrast to the red of the sky as the sun disappears for the day. Only Carpenter could make a fog bank look scary as evident from the unnecessary and bland remake that failed miserably on every level.


The cast acquits themselves admirably with Adrienne Barbeau being a real stand-out as the D.J. with a sexy voice. Much like Laurie in Halloween, Stevie Wayne is a resourceful woman and not some damsel in distress. In The Fog, it is the male characters that are ineffectual and get killed off fairly easily with the notable exception of Nick who saves Stevie’s son at one point. The town even has a female mayor! For a short while, Tom Atkins, who plays Nick, was a favorite of Carpenter’s, and he cast him as the unlikely male lead in both this film and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). He comes across as frumpier, less gruff version of Nick Nolte but an effective leading man nonetheless.


After the surprise success of Halloween, Carpenter and his producer and co-screenwriter Debra Hill wanted to follow it up with another horror film and were interested in doing something different – not another slasher film. In 1977, they were in England visiting Stonehenge and noticed a fog bank that “was pulsating as if something was in it,” remembered Hill. Carpenter felt like that would be an ideal situation for a ghost story. They soon began writing the screenplay and decided to explore the notion of revenge because it was usually a strong motivating factor for ghosts.


 Carpenter was inspired by E.C. Comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror that he enjoyed in his youth and that sometimes involved rotting corpses coming back to life for revenge. The story itself was inspired by an actual incident that took place in Santa Barbara, California during the 1700 or 1800s that caused a ship to crash and only to be hijacked for its gold with the help of a fog. Both Carpenter and Hill also drew inspiration from literary sources. She was influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe and his knack for exploring fear of the unknown, while Carpenter was inspired by the notion of amorphous evil and “something from beyond” from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.


Carpenter and Hill struck a two-picture deal with a small but promising company called AVCO-Embassy who gave them a $1 million budget, significantly more than what they had to work with on Halloween. Carpenter shot the film in the Point Reyes Station area of Marin County in California, which he found while driving up the coast with Hill stopping at every place that had a lighthouse. When they got to Port Reyes, saw the building and found out that it was the second foggiest point in the United States, they knew they had found their location. Carpenter found the fog very difficult to control as it was never the same from scene to scene. During many of the outdoor scenes they were unable to shoot because it was too windy. To do the indoor fog, they would tent in the entire set and make sure no air got in so it would not blow away. The production had different machines for a specific effect, like using a small, hand-held fog machine to squirt it under a door and keep it close to the floor, and large machine to cover a big area. In addition, long shots of the fog in the distance were done by combining background plates with the fog optically. Carpenter found it very time consuming getting the right color, the right density and making sure the fog wasn’t too slow or too fast.


The Elizabeth Dane ghost ship was an actual one anchored in Long Beach, California. The film’s art directors put their own sails on it and surrounded it with fog machines on boats, on the ship itself and on the dock. They also used miniatures, like the scene where Nick saves Stevie’s son at the beach house and the fog overtakes the place. The production built a miniature of the house in black on a soundstage and then had the fog come up on it in scale. The actors were then combined optically.


During the editing phase, editor Tommy Lee Wallace “didn’t have a great feeling” about the footage Carpenter had shot,” and thought that “we did okay.” Carpenter realized that the film wasn’t working and when they screened it for the studio, the executives didn’t think it was scary enough. His original concept for the film relied almost entirely on mood and atmosphere for effect but he went back and added “visceral shock” when his commercial instincts told him that something was missing. He was originally interested in doing an understated horror film with a “brooding atmospheric feel to it,” but didn’t feel like it could compete with films like Alien (1979) and Phantasm (1979). With only three months to go before it would be released, the studio gave Carpenter money to shoot additional scenes, including the title sequence, the climactic top-of-the-lighthouse sequence and reshooting the trawler deaths making them more explicit. The initial version also had a slower pace to it and so he added more energy. In addition, he re-did the sound as the original sound-effects track wasn’t very good and his score, by his own admission, “didn’t work and was very heavy-handed.”


Predictably, the knives came out when film critics came to review The Fog. Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “But as The Fog rolls on, it dissipates its mystery, shock and credibility.” In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, “an acceptable scene-setter, Carpenter reveals glaring inadequacies as a storyteller.” Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars but felt that the film was “made with style and energy, but it needs a better villain.” Finally, Cinefantastique magazine’s David Bartholomew wrote, “I feel a lingering disappointment in The Fog because the movie isn’t more than it is, or hasn’t broken any new ground … But as it is, The Fog is a frisky, efficient and scary movie in a genre overloaded with ineptly lifeless pictures.”


Carpenter does a good job of spacing out the attacks and spends time letting us get to know the key inhabitants of Antonio Bay so that we care about what happens to them later on. For example, there’s the recurring interludes between Dan and Stevie where they coyly flirt with each other like something out of a classic Hollywood film. The Fog is a slow burn film as it gradually builds up the tension and the scares to an exciting finale. Carpenter often likes to explore how a group deals with a threat in his films and so this one features yet another fascinating ensemble cast of characters. With this film, he has crafted quite an effective ghost story that is a triumph of mood and atmosphere. He employs every trick in the book to make the fog something to fear. This is done largely because of what exists within it – the unstoppable, vengeful ghosts of the Elizabeth Dane. They aren’t really evil per se – they exist solely to punish the town for what they did 100 years ago. They only want to right an injustice. Carpenter examines the hypocrisy of a town celebrating an anniversary based on a foundation of lies. This a theme that he would go on to explore several times, most notably in Escape from New York (1981), They Live (1988), and Vampires (1998).


SOURCES

Boulenger, Gilles. John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness. Silman-Jones Press. 2003.

Fox, Jordan R. “Carpenter: Riding High on Horror.” Cinefantastique. Summer 1980.

Scanlon, Paul. “The Fog: A Spook Ride on Film.” Rolling Stone. June 28, 1979.


“Tales from the Mist – Inside The Fog.” Director Jeffrey Schwarz. The Fog DVD. MGM 2002.

10 comments:

  1. The Carpenter blogathon is off to a bang-up start, J.D.! The Fog has been one of my favorites ever since I first watched it on the ABC Friday Night Movie back in the day. Thanks for giving it a great write-up!

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  2. I think THE FOG cemented my appreciation for John Carpenter. It's excellence in atmosphere, and the slow burn you noted, did it for me. I saw HALLOWEEN and THE FOG before going back and picking off DARK STAR and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. And Cundey's cinematography on this (along with JC's scene framing) made it such a visually enjoyable piece.

    BTW, that iconic shot of Blake and his ghost crew at the church is a favorite of mine, J.D. IIRC, Adrienne Barbeau's autobiography mentioned John and her found a house in the Northern California shooting locations byway of doing this film together. I'm with Jeff, on this. One great start to this, my friend! Thanks for this.

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  3. Great start to JC Week! The Fog isn't one of my top 5 John Carpenter films but I still love it dearly. From the opening on the beach - which totally sets the scene - I adore the sense of a campfire story being told as night falls. And the film is sufficiently creepy - Carpenter gets the atmosphere just right and you can see how this influenced so many horror films released in the last few years.

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  4. Jeff Allard:

    I was kinda late getting into this film but I really enjoy it and get more out of it the more times I watch it. I'm glad you enjoyed my write-up!


    le0pard13:

    Yeah, I do love the atmosphere of this film. It draws me in every time. The combination of Cundey and Carpenter is dynamite and I really wish they had done more films together.

    Thanks for that bit about the film from Barbeau's book. I've been meaning to pick that up one of these days.

    As always, thanks for stopping by and for your kind words.


    Dan:

    Yeah, the opening scene really sets the tone for the rest of the film with the subtle, creepy atmospheric vibe. I love it.

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  5. A fine write-up, J.D., and a great start to the week! I recently spent some time in San Francisco with my girlfriend, and one day was allotted for a trip outside the city limits- we spent it on a drive up the coast to the Muir Woods and the Point Reyes Station area. The vistas and seascapes are awe-inspiring (and I was able to recognize a few from the film!), but the drive was sort of nerve-wracking (sheer cliff drops and no guardrails!). Didn't make it all the way out to the Drakes Bay lighthouse (it would have been another hour or so round trip, sunset was approaching, and we didn't want to drive those precipices in darkness!), but I did obtain a bottle of Point Reyes wine- which I believe we'll save for our next (impending) viewing of THE FOG.

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  6. Sean Gill:

    Thank you for the compliments, sir!

    Ah, I am quite jealous that you got to travel 'round Carpenter country. I have been out the west coast myself and I can certainly attest to the scariness of the drive along the coast. I stayed in San Fran and also visited Hearst Castle to get my CITIZEN KANE fix. I wish I had time to track down some of THE FOG locales but ran out of time.

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  7. J.D. Love The Fog.

    I voted for it on your poll along with The Thing.

    Hard to narrow down choices to two by the way. I could narrow down more effectively to five.

    That image you selected at the opening of your review is the one I remember most. It is the perfect image for your post. The image of the grandmother shall forever haunt me while she protects her grandchild. It reminds me of my childhood and spending many hours, days and nights with my own Gram which may tap into why The FOG hits so hard. Small town, eerie scarefest.

    I mean this thing just builds and builds and builds like a mother. It is a tension builder- one of the best! As you said it, it should be utilized in a classroom setting. Because the people making horror films today are missing all of this. They are missing it all. They don't get it. They skipped tension 101. They could learn a thing or two from The Fog. The remake a case in point.

    By the way, your point about Atkins. Carpenter sure did love the man. If it wasn't for Carpenter I wouldn't have seen the actor, but he was always very good.

    I love your points about the film's town being built on lies. There are so many secrets that are compounded by time. I think Carpenter makes a great ghost story. He captures these elements beautifully, simply and poetically.

    As your critics would indicate, The Fog was treated nearly as unkind as The Thing, and like most films by Carpenter in retrospect, I think it's perfect. A true classic. Brilliant work J.D.

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  8. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Ah, glad to see another fan of this film!

    I know what you mean about narrowing down the choices of fave Carpenter films. I finally narrowed it down to THE THING and EFNY.

    Thanks so much for your insightful, personal reflections on this film. There is just something about this film that I can't quite put my finger on that really resonates with me.

    As you point out, part of the power of this film is how it gradually builds the tension and dread until finally the climactic confrontation! And this something lacking from so many horror films nowadays who just cut right to the gore or utilize cheap scare tactics that really aren't all that scary. I won't even get into the unnecessary remake but hey, at least they paid JC well for the rights so he's not sweating it.

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  9. For my money, this is one of the most atmospheric genre pics, and one of JC's finest. It's great to see you paying full tribute here with a fine write-up, and fascinating background detail.

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  10. Steve Langton:

    Agreed! JC sure knows how to apply just the right amount of atmosphere in his films and I absolutely love what he does in THE FOG. It definitely has become one of my faves of his over the years.

    Thank you for the kind words.

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