Monday, October 22, 2018

John Carpenter’s The Fog

It is odd John Carpenter’s immediate follow-up to Halloween does not hold higher esteem in horror fans’ hearts, because it co-stars Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Janet Leigh. They all have their share of screaming to do, yet their respective characters are pretty proactive, especially by the standards of early 1980s horror. This is indeed the perfect time to reconsider Carpenter’s The Fog (trailer here) when it opens in its 4K restored glory this Friday at the Metrograph.

One hundred years ago, the seaside Northern California town of Antonio Bay was founded. Not so coincidentally, there was also a notorious shipwreck just off the coast around that time. Mr. Machen, the town’s story-teller relates the sad tale of how the Elizabeth Dane was lured into the rocky shoals during an unusually foggy night, but the truth is even worse.

Through some sort of supernatural fluke, Father Malone discovers his great grandfather, who was also the town minister, played a role in those events one hundred years ago. It so shakes him, he refuses to give the benediction at the town’s centennial celebration, organized by busybody Kathy Williams. She is usually best when in full multi-tasking mode, but Williams is concerned her fisherman husband has not returned to port. Of course, he is one of the first victims of the fog—and the angry spirits from the Elizabeth Dane that travel within it.

Radio DJ Stevie Wayne spends most of her time in her lighthouse broadcasting studio, but she is one of the first townsfolk to figure out the fog for what it is. Fisherman Nick Castle and Elizabeth Solley the pretty hitchhiker he recently picked up also realize something sinister is afoot when they discover the missing trawler and the grizzly remains of one of the crew. Alas, poor Castle lost a brother, but Solley should more than make up for it.

It is amazing how lean and effective The Fog is at a whisker under 90 minutes, yet Carpenter and his co-screenwriter producer Debra Hill still invest in considerable character development early on. That effort pays dividends later, because we come to care about Wayne, Solley, and Castle. In fact, to a large extent, the film is shaped by the relationship brewing between Solley and Castle, as well as Wayne’s telephone flirtation with weather service meteorologist Dan O’Bannon (one of several in-joke references to former Carpenter collaborators, in this case his co-screenwriter and effects designer on Dark Star).

The Fog is wonderfully atmospheric (and notably bloodless). It totally feels like a John Carpenter film, thanks to the director’s characteristically eerie score and the reliably evocative lensing of his longtime cinematographer, Dean Cundey (unfortunately both were missing from the disappointing The Ward). Frankly, the notion of giving it the crisp 4K treatment is somewhat debatable—after all, it’s called The Fog.

Barbeau is absolutely terrific as Wayne. She constantly kicks up the film’s energy level, even though most of her scenes were filmed alone. Curtis is in her scream queen prime, which means Solley is extremely likable and attractive. Leigh is also quite a force of nature playing Williams, who is a real character with important plot point business (rather than an excuse to get mother and daughter in the same film). It is a delight to see John Houseman chew the scenery as old Machen, but the real surprise is how good Tom Atkins is as Castle. He would become a regular supporting player in the films of Carpenter and George Romero, but his humorous light banter with Curtis suggests he really should have had more leading man opportunities.

Say what you will about Antonio Bay, but Wayne’s KAB-FM was one hip radio station. Primarily, she spun jazz, because it was cheaper to license. As a result, there are a lot of groovy sound library cuts to be heard in the background, including tracks composed by David Lindup and Robert Cornford (both of whom were known for working with Johnny Dankworth). The basic premise is pretty ridiculous, but Carpenter’s tight execution and his totally committed, first-class cast convincingly sells it every step of the way. Very highly recommended for horror fans, The Fog opens this Friday (10/26) in New York, at the Metrograph.