The Fog (1980)

Directed by John Carpenter, Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, 89 minutes, Rated R.

As the AV Club pointed out in their Primer for John Carpenter, Carpenter is a disciple of the church of director Howard Hawks. The Hawksian approach–which focuses heavily on economy and clarity–appears in much of Carpenter’s work. But while films like Halloween and Carpenter’s remake of Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, The Thing, use tight shots, light exposition, and clear emotion to drive much of the horror, The Fog collapses under its own excesses. With a wealth of characters and mythology, The Fog hurts its classic touches, but still generates some worthwhile, if fleeting scares. 

On the eve of Antonio Bay’s 100th anniversary, a mysterious fog creeps to the shore of the small fishing town, leaving a path of barking dogs, broken glass, and a ship of dead sailors in its path. The film then breaks off into three subplots. The first follows a local radio DJ (Adrienne Barbeau) who puts her smooth jazz on hold to report on the whereabouts of the fog. Meanwhile, Nick Castle and his drifter girlfriend Elizabeth (Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis) investigate the dead fishermen. Finally, for expository purposes, centennial head Kathy Williams and her assistant (Janet Leigh and Nancy Loomis) head to the church of crazy old priest Hal Holbrook, who explains the happening’s history in all his wide-eyed glory.

Carpenter packs the cast with both Carpenter veterans (you may remember Curtis and Loomis from Halloween), genre staples (you may remember Janet Leigh from this famous shower), and, of course, Mark Twain impersonators to give inspired readings of cryptic, old journals. They are all well suited to handle even the script’s more ridiculous moments, but excel mostly in close-up. Likewise, the director is best when he keeps things contained, rather than such an epic scale. His Halloween-esque tight shots fair better than his Escape from New York styled race across town.

Still, for an essentially bloodless adventure, The Fog offers some classic scares for the bloodthirsty 80s audience. Carpenter relies heavily on a mixture of smoke and mirrors, understanding that its always better to show less. The shroud of darkness keep his mysterious zombies terrifying instead of looking like the glowy-eyed mummies they are. His high-pitched soundtrack and electronic organ make for a disorienting soundtrack that give the gaseous villain weight.

Like Hawks best work, The Fog works best in smaller moments, when characters clearly express their panic and the director has a hold of the scene. However, as the director pulls back, he reveals too much, taking us away from what’s truly scary and leaves us with a minor road bump on the road from Halloween to The Thing. 

Grade: B

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