|Fog, The (1979)|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 27 August 2002|
In the 1970s and early 1980s, John Carpenter became the undisputed master of creepy and bloody low-budget horror movies. “Halloween” had come out and been an amazing success, shocking and scaring audiences across the United States and other countries. Due to “Halloween’s” popularity, Carpenter was offered a two-picture deal. He and Debra Hill, his partner and co-author, chose to do “The Fog.”
At its core, “The Fog” is a tale of supernatural retribution for an evil done by the townspeople of Antonio Bay against a shipload of lepers looking for a place to settle and probably die. The movie details the night, 100 years after the original crime, when the dead from the wrecked ship rise from the bay and enter the town for revenge.
Chapter 1 opens with a ghost story being told around a beachfront campfire, a creepy enough experience that most viewers can identify with, because most of us have sat around such campfires and told such stories. The opening montage of a pocket watch ticking away, then being violently snapped closed seizes our attention. Although “The Fog” wasn’t recorded with all the Dolby Surround Sound effects, Carpenter remained fully aware of the impression sounds —subtle as well as sudden — have on an audience. The fact that there was no wind makes the scene even creepier, and the intensity of the young audience listening to John Houseman’s ghost story spills on over to the viewer. Carpenter, known for his atmospheric and fear-inducing music scores, pulls out all the stops in this film. However, in the beginning, the music tinkles in the background, tweaking the fear factor. In the distance, church bells ring, sounding hollow and vulnerable.
As the credits roll in Chapter 2, the sound of the wind coming in with the tide howls through the speakers, punctuated by the occasional rise and fall of cricket noises. The church bell continues to ring in the distance, but as the camera pans in over the town, focusing on the church, the bell rings more loudly. One of the more eerie scenes in the movie is the shadow of Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) on the wall of the church, a hunched-over monstrosity of a man painted in two-dimensional darkness. The rock that drops from the wall to reveal the 100-year old journal his ancestor wrote and confessed his sins in is standard fare in schlock horror, as well as ghost stories, but it’s still extremely effective even with an audience that has spent the last 20 years since the film was made steeped in special effects gross-outs and Dolby scream terror.
All across the town, weird things begin to happen in Chapter 4. Credits continue to roll as the film’s mood begins to darken, becoming edgier. The payphones all ring in concerted blasts, triggering an onslaught of commonplace noises that would go relatively unnoticed during a busy day. But in the quiet night of the town at rest, and with the continued strange occurrences, the threat is palpable. The hum of the clock and the rasp of the crickets are equally effective, natural sounds that stick out with the portent of the evil to come. The radio station becomes a constant background during the movie at this time, blowing cool jazz that is relaxing but so quiet it keys up our anticipation that all hell is about to break loose.
In Chapter 5, young hitchhiker Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis) catches a ride with local truck driver Nick. As they drink and talk, truck’s windows suddenly explode, crashing through the speaker. Then, in the quiet that follows the explosions, the jazz kicks in again.
Chapter 7 moves into the violent realm of the ghosts aboard a fishing boat out in the night. The fog that rolls across the ocean is positively vile-looking. The ominous hum that fills the speakers with the appearance of the fog ratchets up the suspense and pulls the audience into willing suspension of disbelief. The splash of oars carries over the ocean surface. The chapter closes with the low, mournful sound of tugboats somewhere far away.
When the fog rolls through the town in Chapter 8, the ghosts of the murdered men come with it. Nick and Elizabeth are in bed together when an ominous knock thuds against Nick’s door.
Chapter 9 opens on an innocuous beach scene as young Andy Wayne runs along with his fishing pole. Andy scans the tide, which crashes through the sound system as best it can without benefit of true surround sound, and spots a gold doubloon lying on a rock. When the tide comes in again, the doubloon transforms into a piece of driftwood bearing the name ”Dane” — presumably from the sunken ship Elizabeth Dane. During this spooky occurrence, Carpenter’s wizardry with the keyboard synthesizer shows again as he lures in his audience with spooky music that settles just under the whipping winds and the crashing tide.
The whole town kicks into the celebration of its centennial year in Chapter 10. At this point, the story divides into three different perspectives. The first perspective is Elizabeth and Nick’s search for the missing fishing boat, while other characters respectively prepare for the party and investigate the odd piece of driftwood. All of them put different pieces of the threatening puzzle together as doom sweeps down over the town.
Chapter 12 showcases some of the striking architecture that was made available during the shooting of the movie. The church’s exterior and interior is beautiful. One of the most startling effects is the sound of Father Malone stepping out of the church’s shadows and startling a woman. The effect is cheap, but is effective in part precisely because it is expected. Some of the effect has been lost because today’s viewers are so jaded.
Chapter 14 features a picturesque lighthouse in a beautiful landscape, the complete opposite of how the area will appear when the fog and the dead sailors invade. The whistling wind and the mournful foghorn roll over the scene, reminding the viewers how far away this place is from the rest of the world.
Chapter 18 features a chilling scene in the local morgue. The absence of extraneous sound, the complete silence in the room weighs like lead and keys up the audience.
A foghorn in Chapter 19 underscores the festive celebrations underway in the town, keeping the threat in the viewer’s mind with the constant low-key sound. Wind whips over the countryside and cawing crows echo through the speakers. The music returns to become a solid presence.
The fog rolls over the town in Chapter 20 with the deep basso sound of the foghorn. Chapter 23 contains a scene of a ghost cutting through at door to get at an intended victim, prefiguring an equally chilling, similar scene in “The Shining,” which was released the following year.
By Chapter 28, Carpenter’s musical score is absolutely nerve-wracking. Carpenter excels at use of music, a skill no doubt augmented by his abilities as a composer.
The additional materials on the DVD are a little lean, but for a movie over 20 years old, this is not unexpected. The outtakes are a lot of fun, but there just aren’t enough of them. Both documentaries on the making of “The Fog” are interesting, showing the “then” and “now” of the director, stars, and other people involved. However, where the special features really shines is in the commentary by Carpenter and Hill, who provide a lot of information about how this film was made, referring to the “poor man’s process” of shaking a vehicle while characters talk inside to make it look as though they are actually driving in an example how cheap special effects were arranged back in those days. Their commentary is honest, witty, and funny, bringing the viewer directly into their experiences at the time and their sense of humor about themselves.
“The Fog” is a low-budget horror film whose time has come and gone except for aficionados of the genre during those years. But the added benefit of watching and hearing Carpenter work, seeing how he chose to go about making his movie and what the end results are, and hearing how so many of these effects were done in days without computer graphics and a big budget for special effects, brings out the investment potential again for buying a copy for the home library. Carpenter is a master of his craft, and he learned a lot on “The Fog,” which he gracefully shares with us. “The Fog” is a definite rental as a popcorn movie with tension but without a lot of gore for the casual viewer.