jamie Lee Curtis
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The Fog (1980)
6th Oct 08
Soggy lepers take revenge on a coastal village 100 years after they were murdered.
Review Reviewed as part of The John Carpenter Collection out on Oct 6th from Optimum.
John Carpenter's most influential and successful movie, Halloween took time to gain momentum at the box office. Achieving popularity by word-of-mouth, the film's success pretty much sealed his fate as a genre director, even though he has occasionally stepped out of the box to remind his critics that he is not, simply, a "pornographer of violence". By the time his TV Elvis biopic aired in 1979, the success of his proto-slasher was undisputable, which is no doubt why AVCO Embassy were keen to capitalise with another genre film before concluding their two-picture deal with Carpenter by giving the world certain character called Snake Plissken.
Carpenter wrote this next project with Debra Hill, basing it in a superbly atmospheric northern California location. The story is simplicity itself - a formula that had already worked for Halloween. The town of Antonio Bay is getting ready to celebrate its 100th birthday, but little do the residents know that some unexpected guests will attend to get retribution for a murderous act a century ago. One of the town's founding fathers, a priest called father Malone, organised a conspiracy to lead the original residents, all suffering from leprosy, to their deaths deep at sea. Once the murderous act had been accomplished, Malone and his men then stole gold belonging to the infected leader, known simply as Blake, using it to set up the new community in 1880.
Set one hundred years later, the ghostly tale follows different sets of characters from the town, on the eve of the birthday celebrations - Nick (Tom Atkins) and Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), a young couple on an amateur sleuth trail following the disappearance of a sea trawler crew. Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), having discovered his grandfather's journal, reads of the treacherous events one hundred years ago, while sensing some kind of curse for "honouring murderers". We also follow the town mayor, Mrs Williams (Janet Leigh) and her PA Sandy (Nancy Loomis), frantically organising the celebrations, and secluded up in the KAB Radio lighthouse is DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) in her lovely tight red jumper, sending mellow vibes out via the airwaves with only the voice of the weatherman (Charles Cyphers) for company. Stevie's young son, Andy (Ty Mitchell) is staying indoors at his mum’s request after finding a mysterious piece of driftwood on which 'Elizabeth Dane' is partly engraved. As the fog closes in, each of these groups will be forced together in the confines of the church for the final encounter with flaky Blake and his soggy shipmates.
It is widely known that Carpenter's first edit of The Fog was a disaster, the man himself stating that, "I had a movie that didn't work, and I knew it in my heart." Going back to the drawing board, he shot additional scenes with added gore in an effort to complete with the insurgence of graphic horror at the time, as well as other additions like the opening storytelling scene in order to give the story a more defined quality. It is perhaps partly because of this that he doesn't cite The Fog as one of his personal favourites. After experiencing such a smooth run with previous productions, completing such panicked re-shoots would be enough to leave a sour taste in anyone's mouth.
The result, however, is a beautifully crafted tale of watery revenge, eerily reminiscent Jacques Tourneur’s films. Few other low budget horror films can match its brooding atmosphere, enhanced by a faultless cast and a truly remarkable signature soundtrack. This is the golden age of the extended Carpenter family, and although this was the legendary Tom Atkins' first experience on a Carpenter set, tried-and-tested figures like Adrienne Barbeau, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers and Jamie Lee Curtis were on board as members of the Carpenter team. Joining the regulars, in a stroke of casting genius, is Janet Leigh (from Psycho), having never before worked with her daughter (Jamie Lee). One can't help but think that this was Carpenter's polite tip of the hat to those critics who hailed him "the new Hitchcock", following the success of Halloween. And of course credit must go to the sombre figure of Hal Holbrook as Father Malone, whose bleak readings of the journal punctuate the actions of the other characters throughout the story. ”We’re all cursed, Mrs. Williams.”
If The Fog feels old fashioned, that’s because it is. By Carpenter’s own admission, he’s a man born out of his time; a man who would be better suited to the golden age of Hollywood. It was never part of his original plan to imbue his tale with graphic detail, and we can be thankful that his eventual decision to do so doesn’t cheapen the overall effect. It feels, above all else, like genuine ‘classic’ horror, and despite being a 1980 film, The Fog feels strangely timeless (much like The Thing).
Expertly shot by Carpenter’s original DoP Dean Cundey (who went onto bigger but not necessarily better things), the film has a tastefully stylized aesthetic without trying too hard; the menacing claustrophobia of the Seagrass interior contrasting with the expanse of the open sea like ghostly poetry. No-one apart from Cundey has ever been able to photograph Carpenter’s imminent threat with such flair – watch out for his signature ‘he’s behind you!’ moment when Stevie fights off Blake’s men atop the lighthouse, almost as effective as it was two years earlier when Michael Myers slowly appeared from the shadows.
As far as pacing is concerned, you can almost sense that Carpenter was panicked about the flow of the piece, then worked like a bastard to make it run seamlessly, because it’s as close to perfection as you’re likely to see in any of his movies. The pace is relaxed enough to begin with as we’re introduced to his characters, then slowly but surely the plot thickens as the strands are gracefully tied together to make way for the crescendo of a climax. It is in this last half where Carpenter's trademark pulsing score really comes into its own, like pounding, demonic thunder in Blake's vengeful heart.
In case you haven't already guessed, I think The Fog rocks. Its charm and inter-textual references are almost impossible to resist. Along with The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13, it ranks as my favourite, and I never, ever tire of watching it. Chances are, you've already seen it anyway. The funny thing about reviewing Carpenter's classic movies is that anyone reading this probably has seen most of them, and when you meet fellow horror fans for a chat over a beer, it's not a case of, "Are you familiar with John Carpenter's movies?", but more a case of, "What are your favourite Carpenter movies?". All I can do is give you my own opinion, but you probably feel quite strongly about what you consider his finest achievements to be, and I’m guessing it’s not Vampires. He's universally adored, and although never likely to achieve any more than a glimmer of what he once gave us, most of us would love him to prove us wrong.
Extras: Tales From The Mist (30 min documentary) / teaser trailer / trailer / 5.1