The Fog (1980)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 May (11.35 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

John Carpenter made The Fog at the height of his creative powers – Halloween had delivered thrills on a budget and there was some expectation about what he’d come up with next. The horror genre continued to provide inspiration with The Fog, and Carpenter worked again with Halloween’s breakout star, Jamie Lee Curtis, but this was quite a different animal to his slasher flick.

The Fog shouldn’t be confused with the James Herbert novel of the same name. There’s no connection, and if anything the film seems more inspired by Stephen King’s work, with its slow build-up and the time it takes to explore the characters. The story is set in a small Californian fishing town, Antonio Bay, which is about to celebrate its centennial. But weird things start to happen on the eve of the anniversary – car alarms going off, electrical failures, payphones ringing, Curtis sleeping with weary looking older man, Tom Atkins – and these are just a precursor to the main event. It turns out the town’s very existence is a curse. Built on the site of a leper colony, a century earlier six town founders lured a ship onto the rocks, which killed all on board (including the boat’s rich, leprous owner, Blake) whilst its gold was plundered. 100 years later, the restless, angry spirits are back to kill the descendants of the six. Their coming is heralded by the appearance of a thick, glowing fog…

Whether it’s the baleful sound of the foghorn or the sense of inevitability that something horrible will happen and no one knows enough to warn the others (Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) discovers his father’s (one of the original six) journal that recounts the crime), The Fog has a feel of oncoming catastrophe that is almost enough on its own to fill the pre-horror running time. Especially good value is Janet Leigh’s town elder, who’s leading the centennial celebration whilst being assisted sardonically by the long-suffering Nancy Loomis. Adrienne Barbeau plays Stevie Wayne, Antonio Bay’s sole DJ. Her studio is in the town’s old lighthouse, and whilst all she plays are old show tunes and jazz hits, she has the kind of husky voice filled with whispered promises that belongs to late night radio.

The Fog isn’t a perfect horror experience. Carpenter’s original cut omitted any nastiness until late in the film, which sat ill with test audiences and prompted him to up the gore quotient with an early attack by Blake’s crew. This has the result of interrupting the film’s logic, as does the twist ending, which shows an inherent lack of faith in the plot’s slow build-up. A shame. The big finale, when it comes, is fine and unsettling, with the steady hammering on people’s doors by the undead crew providing great chills, especially as those knocks are being made by cutlasses and hooks wielded for their killing powers.

What remains is a fine sense of atmosphere, an impending feeling of doom, which makes The Fog a great, late night viewing experience. It spawned a uniformly terrible remake in 2005, which ought to be avoided at all costs. In the meantime, Carpenter was set for his imperial phase during the 1980s, which would produce Escape from New York and his superior update of The Thing.

The Fog: ***

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4 Replies to “The Fog (1980)”

  1. A good piece. The Fog is a film I’m very fond of. It’s greatest strength is indeed its slow burning qualiity and the heavy atmosphere – two elements that arguably are essential to the horror genre, and far outweigh the cheap and ephemeral thrills that are frequently cited as selling points for such movies.

    I’m glad you mentioned the ending, as that “twist” never worked for me and actually harms the overall effect.

    1. Thaks Colin – sorry for the delay in replying. It’s a little sad to think that The Fog could have focused much more on that build-up, without the boat attack or the ‘things going wrong’ in the town as the filmopens. The former makes sense within the context of the story, but the car alarms going off, petrol pump delivering, etc, makes none – why would 19th century seafarers have any knowledge of this? A shame there was some bottling done just to up the thrills; for me the build-up has bags of uneasy atmosphere and ought to suffice. It may not be as effective and creepy as The Haunting or The Innocents, but it’s got something.

  2. I remember watching this film as a child and being terrified of it. Even when I watch it now it still retains jumpy moments. The best thing about the film in my opinion is the slow building suspence.

    1. It’s great, late night stuff, isn’t it? So atmospheric, and it’s a bit of as shame they didn’t hold their nerves and keep building the atmosphere rather than have those ‘early’ killings. Ah well. We often get foggy nights where I live and I can quite imagine that dead hammering on the door *shudders*

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