In late ’70s and early ’80s, an era of rapid-onset gigantism from both young blockbuster wannabes (see Lucas, Spielberg) and the then-old New Hollywood dogs who hadn’t learned new tricks but sure dug learning how to spend more money on the old ones (see Coppola, Cimino, both of whom I adore), John Carpenter was a breath of shedding, frigid air. His run from Assault on Precinct 13 through Halloween, Escape from New York, and The Thing is simultaneously a breathless rush and malarial lurch (that contrast being Carpenter’s hometown) through old-school B-picture primitivism updated with hungry young carnivorousness. Smack dab in the middle was the ugly duckling of the bunch, his somewhat forgotten ghost story The Fog, another obvious ode to Carpenter’s youth in the form of a relatively classical, compositionally sound ghost story. Although its reputation hardly precedes it, The Fog is an always humble director at his most humble, maybe his most straight-faced, and, well, not his best per-se, but nearly his moodiest.
Post-Thing Carpenter would experiment with themes that were better left implicit in his earlier films. What was once a white-faced specter in a William Shatner mask propelling himself through the hearth of America with nary a word would become the kernel of the evil idea that Carpenter would massage into a full-on dissertation in films like Prince of Darkness (Carpenter’s final stone-cold near-masterpiece) and the pricklier They Live. Those films certainly boast their own pleasures, but there’s something purely ice-cold about Carpenter’s halcyon days as minimalist artist positively excoriated of ego or ambition beyond to perfect his craft, when he was a pragmatist simply doing horror rather than trying to conceptualize what horror was. And while The Fog is undeniably the least perfect of the five films I began this review with, its unalloyed beauty of straight-up spooks and laconic mood is plenty pleasurable in its own register. It is, I think, the only film of the five where Carpenter is simply paying homage to the classics by repeating them rather than updating and critiquing them as he did in his best films. But Carpenter using only some of his tools is still a mighty fine day at work anyway.
Introducing itself with an early playful gesture for an at-this-time stone-faced director who would soon flower into a little imp of sorts, The Fog explicitly foregrounds its campfire-story aspirations by, well, diegetically depicting itself as a campfire story being presented for a group of children. The meat, the innards of that story, is visually unvarnished and given to enough grime so as not to be mistaken for a true kid’s film, but there’s certainly an aura of the familial and the spookily domestic to it in stark contrast with the overtly menacing small-scale apocalypse texture of Halloween and The Thing.
Like any good campfire story, the embellishments are the gold filigrees, with the bone of the thing just a rusty old “the founders of our town ran out a leper colony and now they’re back to roost with a ghostly fog as a personal chauffeur” routine. But the telling unabashedly overturns the film’s somewhat diminished reputation. Part of the thing is that the early goings, a nearly-wordless montage of the town simply being itself sans-story, are as close to pure mood as Carpenter ever got. He’s going less for soul-sick dread (his forte) and more for tingle-on-your-spine this time, and considering he’s writing with his off-hand, there’s hardly a sour note in the sea shanty. (The ghosts, by the way, are not narratively piratical per-se, but the mise-en-scene certainly wishes us to think the antagonists are pirates in an amusingly absurdist gut-before-head contrast that catches Carpenter in the act of being a true filmmaker who like all the greats privileges affect over logic).
The Fog eases us in with one of the many tools in Carpenter’s belt: his ungodly ability for capturing the quotidian minutiae of daily life that can’t always stop for the spine quiver of a fog rolling into town. Unlike most other horror filmmakers of the decade, he was never thinking with his groin (or his wallet, and wouldn’t you know it but too often there seems a pipe leading directly between the two where franchises like Friday the 13th are concerned). So sex is more a suggestion than a throb, we have genuine adults with things like work lives and routines to manage, and the violence while present and ghoulish is a relative phantom limb compared to the same year’s much more popular, and much worse breakout hit Friday the 13th. In this sense, the terror actually seems to interrupt something resembling a domestic ritual, placing it at the level of the uncanny in a way that many slasher films (which this is not) can’t even shake a stick at.
For Carpenter, selling the horror is as simple as a well-placed angle, an astounding sound space that invokes a vacant emptiness even as it fills in the town with silence, and plenty of the titular good stuff. Not to mention character, at least in one case: a husky mother and radio voice of the town played by then muse Adrienne Barbeau, shifting between an on-air persona as the disembodied voice of human sexuality as the town’s radio DJ and her on-screen reality as an effortfully exhausted working mother. Her go-getting self-modulation between the two within shots, sometimes within lines even, is the platonic ideal case study for those in the audience (me included) liable to defend B-movie actors. She’s a true-blue three-dimensional character in a film that is proudly, defiantly lean, mean, and unembellished (in the best way, care-of classical rabid white dog filmmakers like Sam Fuller, who would return two years later with a Carpenter-esque well, White Dog). More importantly, Carpenter’s leisurely aesthetic, all lazy-day coastal vibes that massage your back and slowly constrict around your throat as the fog lurches right up into your gut, gives Barbeau ample room to breathe and feel out her performance.
She’s the only obvious standout, but Carpenter fills in his cast with admirably everyday dialogue (delivered in part by Jamie Lee Curtis, a victory lap after Carpenter’s Halloween put her on the path to stardom, and her mother and horror legend Janet Leigh, acting with daughter dearest for the first time). And they’re not expendable meat, by the way. Other than a few intrusions of violent phantasmagoria, this is, as mentioned, the closest Carpenter ever danced with the Spielberg kiddie-horror that so often lumps the two directors together in the minds of modern Stranger Things aficionados (to name an amiable attempt to churn out in seven hours what Carpenter always managed to gin up in less than a fourth of that length). But Carpenter, although sometimes willing to give in to his baser impulses (which were different from, although equal in magnitude to, Spielberg’s), was at the least the tighter filmmaker, and frequently the better of the two.
Perhaps the film’s relative failure (although it was a commercial success by some margin at the time) is rooted in its reticence to endorse Carpenter’s then-golden-child model practiced and perfected in Halloween. There, he triangulated ‘70s malaise, the nihilistic aggression of exploitation, and the B-movie primitivism of the punk explosion (Carpenter himself was more of a ‘50s rock dude of course, but then punk was the new pompadour as far as taking rock back to its basics). Hardly enshrouded in the same thick cloak of doom, The Fog is a more delicate flower. I kid, but it is more ethereal and spectral, to say the least, and its punchy 89 minutes register less as a throat-grabbing execution (a la Halloween) and more as a quick stopover in a dilapidated haunted mansion theme park. Very good stuff, even if it suffers from a problem that none of Carpenter’s other career-making films do: a nearly perfect descent in quality from the first to the last image. It’s a very minor slope, mind you, almost flat, but it’s there, and it is one unfortunate trick this reviewer has no way of ameliorating in otherwise championing this minor treat of a film.