Sunday, June 16, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘The Fog’

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“The town sits around for a hundred years, and nothing happens, and then one night the whole place falls apart.”

Few horror movies have ever embodied the feeling of eeriness quite like John Carpenter’s The Fog. It’s never unbearably tense or overly gory but it does feel at all times as if something isn’t right. There’s a strangeness to the film that elevates and enhances its effectiveness.

The Fog is not the best Carpenter film but it is one of my favorites. The script by Carpenter and longtime producing partner Debra Hill is filled with poetic prose like, “My grandfather hid his sins in the wall.”

There’s a fine layer of sardonic humor to keep it from becoming too pretentious. That same scene features Kathy (Janet Leigh) and Sandy (Nancy Loomis) planning the celebration for the town’s 100th anniversary.

Kathy: It’s getting pretty late. There’s really nothing we can do about any of this. Are you going to give the benediction tonight, Father?

Father Malone: Antonia Bay has a curse on it.

Sandy: Do we take that as a no?

The humor never overwhelms the atmosphere Carpenter has worked so hard and so effortlessly to build. Thankfully, the poetic nature of some of the lines never comes off as too flowery or pretentious. It is a work of perfect balance.

The film begins on a cold chilly spring night. Mr. Machen (John Houseman) sits by a roaring fire telling stories to the children gathered around. The opening scene allows us to understand that Carpenter and Hill know exactly what they’re doing. The film’s self-awareness is another of the film’s strengths.

Houseman’s voice, measured and theatrical, tells a story about the Elizabeth Dane. The Dane was a clipper ship that got lost in the fog off the coast of Antonia Bay. The ship sailed into the shallows, tearing the hull, and sinking the ship and killing all onboard. A simple, forthright, tragic tale to set up the haunting eerieness of the ghost zombie story to follow.

The Fog works because it understands, like all great horror movies, that it’s what we can’t see that frightens us. Much of the movie consists of shots of empty streets at night, the wind howling, with Carpenter’s magnificent unsettling synth score blaring over it all. It may not be as memorable as his score for Halloween, but Carpenter’s score for The Fog is just as effective if not more complicated and layered.

We are introduced to Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), the town disc jockey who’s turned the old lighthouse into the town radio station. Her smoky voice is practically a secondary score to the film, as she spins the hits and warns sailors, and us, about the fog. Barbeau’s voice is Carpenter’s secret weapon outside the fog itself. 

“Get inside and lock your windows. There’s something in the fog.” There’s something about her voice—a low, husky, lonely voice—that aids in the atmosphere of The Fog. Even in scenes where her voice isn’t present, it can feel as if she’s still there, warning us about what’s happening around the town. Barbeau’s presence and voice lend a sense of being haunted by the past and unsettled by the future.

The Fog at its core is about the past demanding to be reconciled with the present. Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) discovers his grandfather’s journal. He discovers that the Elizabeth Dane carried lepers on their way to Antonio Bay to live in a leper colony. The people of Antonio Bay had agreed to let them stay for a price and then purposefully led them to the reefs and watched them drown. 

A lot goes unexplained but none of it matters. Sometimes you just have to recognize when the question, while valid, is also beside the point. Carpenter isn’t interested in details, he’s interested in getting the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up.

Lensed by Dean Cudney, The Fog is quite simply a masterpiece of mood. It’s fascinating to watch how scenes that aren’t meant to be eerie or tense have those qualities to them simply because Cudney is shooting them so straightforward, almost documentary style. At times it feels like a small-town drama, the way some scenes focus on things like Katy and Sandy getting the preparations for the town’s anniversary together.

The way Cudney uses light to make the dense fog glow with an eerie otherworldliness as it creeps along is gorgeous and unnerving. Cudney and Carpenter combine the score and the creeping fog to create a faceless horror, the past that refuses to be forgotten.

A perfect example of Cudney’s skill involves Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Tom (Nick Castle). The two sit in the hull of the ship talking about the strangeness of the sea, a lightbulb swinging back and forth above them. Curtis and Castle’s faces are partially illuminated, partly covered in shadows as the bulb swings back and forth. 

Another movie would have cut the scene. First off, the amount of work it must have taken Cudney and Carpenter to light that scene is bordering on Herculean. Secondly, it tells us about Tom and Elizabeth. But most importantly, it’s just a creepy strangle hypnotic scene.

Carpenter is using the film as a chance to poke at the fears that haunt the edges of our psyche. Oh, sure he’s also making a point about colonialism and how oftentimes the idyllic present came about at the expense and bloodshed of others, usually those who were deemed the most expendable. Father Malone is horrified by the realization but the others are more blasé. 

They didn’t do anything. Why should they be concerned?

Carpenter and Hill slyly look at society’s own inability to ever take responsibility for it’s past. The fog is a formless entity but it represents how easily trauma and the past, if ignored, can spread and engulf a people. While it may not be the most complex dissertation on it, there is something effective and haunting about its simplicity. 

He takes all that complexity and boils it down to the very simple idea of something going bump in the night. Carpenter is playing with that part of us that is always on alert. He’s nudging our subconscious, and he’s doing it in a way that keeps us on edge.

The Fog is allegorical storytelling. It is not filled with twists and turns operated by a maze of complicated plot machinations. The film is a campfire story, simple characters with simple motives: escape the fog. 

But we can’t. That’s what’s so nerve-racking. We can’t escape the past or ignore the sins of our ancestors. Carpenter pricks at the edges of our anxieties. The Fog reminds us that although we may be done with the past, the past is not done with us.

Image courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures

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