"The Fog" (1980) Review
If the word "spooky" transformed into a film, it would look almost exactly like The Fog.
One of my favorite quotes from any film comes from Disney's Fantasia. During the introduction to the Nutcracker Suite segment, the host of the film, Deems Taylor, remarks "You know, it's funny how... wrong an artist can be about his own work." It's a joke, but it's also a statement about the relationship between the artist and the audience. The artist might not be satisfied with their own creation, but the audience will find plenty to love about the work.
John Carpenter has never been fond of The Fog. It was heavily re-shot to add more scenes to get the film to feature length status, and Carpenter was still working with a relatively low budget. It's a film that's marked by bizarre scenes that feel like vignettes in a larger piece, but it somehow all comes together. It's most famous scene, a prologue where John Houseman tells the ghost story that sets the stage for the entire film, was one of the final scenes shot for the movie. The Fog is a product of strife that was criticized in its time for being a lackluster follow-up to Halloween.
Divorced from that timeframe, I've found plenty to love about The Fog. It's one of my favorite horror films of all time, and while it doesn't rise to the absolute legend status of my favorite John Carpenter film (The Thing), it's still an atmospheric miracle of low-budget filmmaking. It's filled with deep cut references to literary and film horror throughout, from naming local landmarks after Lovecraftian terminology to having "H. Hawks" scribbled on the wall in the background of a shot. Most of all though, it's just... Spooky.
The film's villains, ghostly apparitions that live in the titular fog, don't adhere to strict rules. They attack when it's spooky, operating on a dreamlike logic. But I'd be damned if I pretended it didn't work like a charm. The film centers on the town of Antonio Bay, a city on the eve of its 100th anniversary. As various townspeople encounter strange and horrific occurrences around town, a local pastor, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), discovers a horrific bit of buried history in his church about the creation of Antonio Bay. As the night of the centennial falls, the townsfolk including a local fisherman, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins), a hitchhiker, Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis), a councilwoman, Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh), and the local radio DJ, Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) struggle to survive as a mysterious fog bank descends on the town.
The Fog oozes atmosphere. Every single shot is designed to look foreboding, whether it's a woman driving a Jeep in broad daylight or a small fishing boat being swallowed by the fog. The cinematographer, Dean Cundey, does some of his best work here, and considering he was also the cinematographer for Halloween, The Thing, and even Jurassic Park, that's saying a lot. It's all incredibly creepy, and the creep factor only increases with John Carpenter's incredible music. For a man who was responsible for composing the Halloween theme song, The Fog might represent Carpenter at the height of his music composition powers. The synth music here is pushed to the limit, along with sparing piano notes that float through the film's soundscape.
The actors are good enough for the movie's purposes, but Adrienne Barbeau as the radio DJ is a true standout. Acting as the literal voice of survival, she puts damn near everything she has into the movie, particularly a monologue that would have felt cheesy if delivered the wrong way feels like the perfect way to slowly bring the film to a fantastic conclusion. John Houseman is technically the best performer in the film, but he only has the opening scene to flex his acting chops. He does singlehandedly set the tone for the entire rest of the movie though, so that's damn impressive.
If The Fog has a notable flaw, it's the film's use of sound during jump-scares. Each initial attack by the ghosts always features a ridiculously loud noise and it feels like the movie trying far too hard to scare the audience. There are also a few false jump-scares that feel borderline comical, and not in a good way. That being said, the film's final jump-scare is so so SO good that I'm willing to let that slide.
The Fog is one of the best bits of atmospheric horror out there, beautifully low in scope and contained. It's a personal favorite of mine and I hope more people are willing to give it a chance to live outside of Halloween's shadow now that so much time has passed.