I often talk about how atmosphere is one of the most important elements to a creative work, any creative work. Let me give a quite silly example: Picture the Mona Lisa in a circus tent. It no longer carries the weight as if it were in the Louvre. When I spoke of the movie Halloween recently, I talked about how the music was as important to the film as anything else. Give it a different soundtrack or even no soundtrack and much of the important mood setting atmosphere is gone. Also consider the atmosphere Halloween and fall give as a season. Look at this image from Halloween 3: Season of the Witch. The image alone, with the shades of orange and deep shadows, the witch hat and dim street lights conjure and evoke emotion and images in your head. THIS is the very definition of atmosphere when it pertains to creative works. What does it make you feel when you see the set, the colours, or hear the sounds.
So in 1980 John Carpenter, and his partner, Debra Hill worked together again after the phenomenal success of Halloween to give us The Fog. Now, any of my coastal or moisture ridden geographical location readers know the meteorological event known as fog, is a driving nightmare. Visibility goes to hell in a handbasket. Sound gets distorted. During the day it will burn off – usually – but in the morning and evenings it becomes interesting as light is distorted and shapes become soft and blurry. A night – well at night, fog becomes a living entity. It swallows things when they move just a little bit away from you. It becomes as if they didn’t exist at all in mere moments when you would expect to see it normally. Normally benign shapes become threatening and light passes through it in all sorts of ways. Look at this photo below, this was just as sunset was happening right before a Ghost Tour. The fog creates something here that wasn’t there…
Even Stephen King has a story about a similar event in The Mist (one of the few stories to ever scare me). So back to the review, Fog itself invokes feelings and images alone. Add the context of a horror movie which spend so much time at night. Now add a Ghost Story to it. Interested? So were audiences, as this is what Cameron and Hill gave us. Take a small coastal California town and have it be invaded by spectral pirates within the fog (c’mon that sounds too cool), terrorizing its citizens. Shoot on a low budget of the time for $1 million, and spend as much time building atmosphere as you do building story and you have a successful film that lasts decades.
Of course, this also needs good actors as well. Carpenter cast his wife at the time Adrienne Barbeau, who mostly had done TV before, as the “voice” of the movie DJ Stevie Wayne who broadcasts from her lighthouse. Jamie Lee Curtis makes her second film appearance here as one of the film heroines Elizabeth. Carpenter even snagged her mother, the esteemed Janet Leigh, as a role in the film. Heavy Tom Atkins (Halloween 3, Serpico, Creepshow) plays Nick Castle; the name of the actor who played The Shape in Halloween, our film hero. Other greats include Hal Holbrook and John Houseman. While the film may have been quickly scripted, shot on a budget, and even been plagued by reshoots, every actor carries their scenes as if it were appropriately life and death.
From a purely technical perspective, the movie is remarkably strong. The use of fog (duh), silhouettes, and super bright white lights does a tremendous job. The fog itself is a living thing and something you become afraid of because you can’t see whats coming, but you know it will be bad. As they were working on a budget so many of the effects and scenes rely on the famous rule of implying without showing. You don’t have to see someone actually killed on screen. A single shape in the right place, a hook hand, and foot steps walking up behind an unsuspecting victim. You know what is about to happen, you find yourself going “No!” and hoping for the best, but know otherwise. This is where some of the best horror comes from – what you can’t see. When you can see something you can fight it. You might have a chance to win. While the effects do work and are strong, they are also dated. I almost want someone to go in and try to clean up or modernize some of the effects on the original film to bring them to more timelessness. I don’t mean to change them, but to clean them. Changing them …well I will talk about that tomorrow.
The Fog is a beautifully crafted, atmospheric, horror film that is near timeless. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t even “great”. But if you find yourself in the need for a ghost story with real weight and even an outcome that most movies would be afraid of these days, please watch this. It’s a good film for a foggy night. Its a good film for a rainy night. It’s a good film for October.
I don’t know where The Fog would show on my Top 50 horror movies of all time, but it would be up there. It is absolutely worth a shot.