Sunday, January 31, 2010
THE FOG (1980) Film Review
by Brian Holcomb
John Carpenter follows up his tremendously successful Halloween with what was intended to be a throwback to the classic, suggestive horrors of Val Lewton. He half achieves this but because of last minute reshoots designed to make the film scarier for a modern audience, we are left with a film that's a bit schizophrenic in it's approach.
The story is a simple and very old fashioned campfire tale. In fact, it's all laid out for us by cranky John Houseman scaring the shit out of some kids around an actual campfire in the film's prologue. I'll let him sum it up:
"Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before midnight, just to keep us warm. In five minutes, it'll be the 21rst of April. One hundred years ago on the 21rst of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot ahead of them. And then, they saw a light. My God, it was a fire burning on the shore. Strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks. The hull sheared in two. The mast snapped like a twig.And the wreckage sank with all the men aboard. At the bottom of the sea lay the Elizabeth Dane with her crew, their lungs filled with saltwater, their eyes open and staring
into the darkness."
And of course they will rise from the dead on this night, the night that the community of Antonio Bay celebrates its centennial, to get their revenge. It's a little more complicated than that what with Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) mumbling about how the founding fathers stole the land from those doomed sailors. But it's a simple tale at heart, what Stephen King called a "Tale of the Hook" in his fine book on the horror genre, Danse Macabre, stories which bypassed the intellect for true, primal fears.
What Carpenter and his fine collaborator the late Debra Hill were so good at during this time was in crafting suspenseful, slow burn horror stories with multiple storylines. Halloween used the Dr. Loomis storyline to create real suspense and dread as the Shape stalked Laurie Strode and her friends. Loomis' pursuit elevated Michael Meyers into an abstraction of evil that the stalk and slash scenes could not by themselves. In The Fog they attempt to do something similar but perhaps influenced by Stephen King's very skillful manipulation of story and character in Salem's Lot, they take it to another level. Instead of running two main storylines, The Fog juggles quite a few more and attempts to create a real sense of community within its fictional Antonio Bay. This is all held together with an almost Altman-esque device: the local DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) whose sultry voice spins late night jazz records from her dream of a radio station atop the Bay's spooky lighthouse.
Starting with Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter had been perfecting what I would term a "NIGHT OF THE DAY BEFORE THE NIGHT" structure which worked like gangbusters for tension building stories. It's a classically 24 hour three part structure which allowed for a suggestive beginning that hinted at the dangers to come in the NIGHT. Followed by some slow building exposition and establishment of character and setting in the DAY BEFORE. This eventually gives way to a long final sequence which blows the lid off the tension in a series of intense set pieces. This is the third act or THE NIGHT. It's a structure normally used for classical Greek tragedy as laid out by Aristotle in his Poetics. An integration of all the dramatic unities-time, place and action.
The Fog follows this structure to a "T " and much of the film's overall effect is the result of this form. However the film fails to achieve the sense of completeness that Halloween did because its goals are so much more ambitious. Although the film is very slickly made, it was still produced on a very low budget. The slick look is the result of not only Carpenter's own grasp of craft and widescreen composition but also the beautiful night photography of Dean Cundey, a cinematographer who was known to be both skilled and fast.
However, the budget required a more restrained approach that goes against the massive buildup of the film's first two acts. The film's STORY promises that there will be a large celebration in town for it's centennial, including the unveiling of a memorial to the film's murderous founding fathers. It promises that the fog will roll in during these celebrations and much like the beach attack in Jaws would result in apocalyptic mayhem. Ghostly sailors emerging from the fog to shed blood as our main characters flee for safety. As staged in the final film, the ending feels unfinished and underproduced. There IS a town celebration but it seems that only about 10 people could make it that night and the memorial itself is underwhelming, reminding one of the tiny STONEHENGE from This is Spinal Tap.
But this is a small complaint. The Fog is a movie I've seen hundreds of times and will watch anytime it's on TV. It has so much wonderful atmosphere and that amazing, inimitable music that can only be John Carpenter even when it's Ennio Morricone (See or rather listen to THE THING). A flawed gem.
KINETOFILM SCORE 3.5/5