Halloween, for example, was made about a vaguely supernatural, masked serial killer. Sure that's commonplace now, but at the time it was made no studio was interested. The film was not only good, but was a financial success. Later we had a film called They Live, which starred a pro-wrestler as a homeless guy and dealt with a special pair of sunglasses that allowed said homeless wrestler to see special messages from our Monstrous Overlords. And it was good. Hard to believe, isn't it?
I could go on and on, but instead, let's cut to The Fog!
1980's The Fog was John Carpenter's next theatrical release after 1978's Halloween (he made two television films in between) and remained close to the genre that launched him into the mainstream. He even kept his leading lady, Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis, and his co-writer/ producer Debra Hill. In addition, he and Debra have named many of the characters in this film after their friends and collaborators. Listen for characters named after Dan O'Bannon, Nick Castle and Tommy Wallace (who actually does appear in this film and has several crew positions as well).
Beyond that, The Fog is a very different film from anything Carpenter had done before. This is, of course, a good thing, considering that plenty of other people out there had made their own unauthorized follow-ups to Halloween already and would continue to do so until... well, that hasn't ended yet, has it?
The story begins on a dark night around a camp fire near the chilly fishing village of Antonio Bay. Our stage is set with a fireside horror story told to a group of kids by Mr. Machen (John Houseman, looking a lot more like The Simpsons' "Sea Captain" than The Paper Chase's Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr.). A hundred years ago a camp fire very much like the one before them beckoned a ship to its death in the frighteningly thick fog off the coast. The old man tells the children that one day on a night just like this one, when the fog returns, so will the hapless crew to once again seek out the deceptive camp fire and take revenge on those that led them to their doom.
What the children (and the audience) don't realize is that the salty dog's story may well be true.
That same night marks two other events in the history of the town. The first is the arrival of Jamie Lee Curtis' Elizabeth Solley, who is hitchhiking across the country. Luckily she's picked up on this cold night by beer drinking Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) who is willing to share his Budweiser... and a few other things. The second event is all hell breaking loose. Glass begins to shatter without warning, furniture begins to move on its own as if powered by the ghosts from Poltergeist, cars start by themselves, electricity is interrupted, dogs bark, alarms go off and in many places the Earth Shakes. The words "For God's Sake Get Out" spring to mind, of course, but let's not forget that Antonio Bay is said to be in California, so an Earthquake is not out of the question. One odd incident happens to local Episcopalian Priest Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) when a stone falls from the wall in his study revealing the diary of his Grandfather, which was written right around one hundred years prior! What he finds written there actually makes the insane happenings in town seem like a nice nap on a warm, quiet day at the nude beach!
The local Disc Jockey Stevie Wayne (sexy Adrienne Barbeau who was married to Carpenter at the time) is the first to realize that these strange occurrences also coincided with the appearance of a strange, glowing Fog over the Ocean that seems to go as "Against the Wind" as every member of "The Silver Bullet Band"! She knows this, interestingly enough, because the radio station she not only works at, but owns is located in the town's old Lighthouse, which, to say the least, has a unique vantage point. Unfortunately for the crew of The Seagrass, they have an even better vantage point, which makes them the first to know just what's in the fog.
The weirdness and scares of the night manage to propel Elizabeth right into Nick's bed (though we don't see any of Jamie Lee's goodies until 1983's Trading Places) just a few minutes after she meets him. Wow, talk about charisma, man! We should all pick up more hitchhikers, huh? That's pretty amazing, actually. That Jamie Lee! I should tell her mother... if I could only find her... uh... OH, WAIT, there she is... Janet Leigh plays town elder Kathy Williams, who is determined to have a kick-ass Centennial Celebration for Antonio Bay! This is with the help of her cute, yet sarcastic assistant Sandy (Nancy Kyes).
The real question is whether or not this celebration will change when Father Malone reveals to Sandy and Mrs. Williams the content of Grandpa's journal and what it means to this history of the township. It might be too damned late, though. The mystery thickens like Pea Soup as the story continues and more clues are revealed by Malone, Stevie's son Andy Ty Mitchell and, of course, Nick and Elizabeth.
And with the mystery, the fear rises, too. When that crazy fog comes back, quite literally, with a VENGEANCE we are given hints about an old ship called Elizabeth Dane, a mysterious man named Blake (Rob Botton) and the true nature of the Fog itself. I stress the HINTS, by the way, as The Fog is short on answers. It's long on questions, rich in scares and deep in suspense, not to mention overflowing with what just might be Pirate Ghosts... or are they Ghost Pirates? Maybe they're Pirate Ghosts. No, no, Ghost Pirates. I'm kidding, I'm kidding, they're ZOMBIES! Or as close to Zombies as one can get while still maintaining this Ghostly Story.
Maybe they're Zombie Pirates? No, no, no, they're not Pirates at all. Well, they do raid another ship at one point and... NO, NO, NO... enough with the Pirate crap. They're just Zombies. Well, ghosts. Okay, okay, Zombie Ghosts. Or just Ghosts... with... rotting fleshy bodies and... so they're Zombies. Ghosts. Not Pirates. With Pirate-like Tendencies. No. Enough about the Pirates. That's it! Each one is just a GHOST... Zombie.
See what I mean, The Fog is short on answers, but long on questions. One thing it's not short on, to say the least, is Atmosphere! John Carpenter knows exactly when to slow down and let the suspense build as the Fog becomes a tangible character all its own. He knows when to speed things up and add dialogue and exposition and he knows when to shut everyone up and allow the visuals to be visionary. While Carpenter isn't averse to showing blood, gore or violence here (by rotting hand, rusty sword or shining hook), he also doesn't use this tool as a crutch, confusing "audience discomfort" with "Horror". Further, though there are some valid starts in this film, make no mistake, Carpenter never relies on the quick frights to make one jump. As both the composer of the film's score and director, Carpenter never confuses startles with scares, never relies on the quick hit for a cheap thrill and is most satisfied in terrifying the audience because they don't know what's happening in the fog and even more so when they know what is coming and are still afraid until it finally happens.
What happens is of great interest both in and out of the fog of The Fog! The film works because we feel the horror of the characters and we experience the terror of the unknown here. Further, the script is well-written enough for us to understand the characters, their motivations and the history that put them where they are at this point. None of this would work if the actors weren't good. Sure we can all look at actors like Houseman, Holbrook and even Leigh with great respect, but the fact that Curtis (still a relative newcomer), Atkins (more commonly a TV actor in smaller parts at that time) and Barbeau (often dismissed in the press as Eye Candy) all keep up with them and roll with the momentum shows that a well-rounded cast is enjoyed all over the film.
The Fog has a satisfying ending that still manages to leave the viewer wanting more. This could be a good thing in that Carpenter and Hill can maintain the viewers' interest even after the credits roll, or it could be a bad thing if the viewer is left with too many questions and an unfulfilled feeling. As I said, however, this is not a film that attempts to give all the answers. Much of the suspense is due to the unknown and while Carpenter did re-write and re-shoot several key moments for clarity (and thrills, thrills, thrills) he does seem to have known just where to draw the line to keep an exposition from becoming an education.
Trust me on this one, The Fog is deep and thick enough to put Four Stars out of Five in its Bank! If you haven't seen it and you're a fan of more intelligent, less "startling" and more atmospheric horror, sail straight on to this one. If you haven't seen it for a while (or are only familiar with the 2005 Remake), it's time to check the original The Fog out all over again. As I've learned, watching one of the CLASSIC John Carpenter films as an educated adult is a lot different from watching it in the quick-draw judgment times of youth. So until I ruin this review by using a horrible pun like "Overdrawn at the Fog Bank", I'll see you in the next Hazy Reel!
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Which should clear things up
and burn off all this June Gloom!
But I warn you... SIX MUST DIE!
To make way for SEVEN... which is July and... um...
The Summer of Horror ends in NINE!
J.C. Maçek III is based on a true story.
Shylo I like true stories. Makes for good reading.
J.C. Maçek III I'm engrossing.
Shylo Yes, you are that.
J.C. Maçek III Would it be in bad taste to mention the Braille Edition?
Shylo Not at all!
J.C. Maçek III It's a must read. Very touching.
Shylo No tear jerkers for me.
J.C. Maçek III Definitely not. Only smiles.
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