FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Aug 8, 2006

I Heart: The Fog

Midnight 'til one belongs to the dead.

Insomuch as that my last name is "Ponder", I feel it is my birthright to ruminate, to mull, to dwell, and to philosophize. It then follows that I spend a good amount of time staring at the wall, asking myself such questions as "What is the nature of man?"..."What is art?"..."What time is it?"...and "If I were to be executed, what what would I request for a last meal?". Then I ponder, I stroke my metaphorical goatee, and I try to answer myself: "The nature of man is to be good and productive, free to act according to himself"..."Art is intent"..."It's 7:42" (or, if I'm feeling sassy, "Time to buy a new watch!")...and "Hmm, let's from Adriatico's, Rachael's lasagna, malai kofta from that place on 27th & Lex, Nutter Butters with Nutella on top, and mint chocolate chip ice cream". Sometimes I also think "Given the seriousness with which I take the meaning of my surname, the world should be thankful that my name is not Stacie Killandeatallbabies". My rivers run deep, you see. Deep.

Folks, I promise...I'm only a little drunk and I will get to a point eventually. Wait, I think it's coming...ah yes, here it is.

I was watching The Fog (the 1980 version, of course) recently, and a few minutes into it- during the credits- I thought "Wow. The Fog is so awesome. In fact, there are so many of my favorite people in it and so many kickass elements throughout, it just may be my perfect dream movie. It is totally exactly like what my last meal before my execution would be- made up of a little bit of everything I love. OH MY GOD THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A BETTER METAPHOR FOR ANYTHING IN THE HISTORY OF EVER!"

In case you don't know what I'm talking about (since that metaphor doesn't seem so great after the crack high wears off), I'm talking about all these ingredients that make The Fog like a spicy jambalaya from heaven:

*The writing/producing/directing wonder twins John Carpenter and Debra Hill doing their thing!

*Oh, honey, the cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, Nancy Loomis, John Houseman, Janet Leigh, Charles Cyphers, and...Adrienne Barbeau!

*ghost ships and drippy dead sailors that come out of...the fog !

100 years ago, the elders of the coastal fishing village Antonio Bay sent out a false light signal on a foggy night, sealing the fate of the sailing vessel Elizabeth Dane and the merry band of lepers she carried. As Antonio Bay celebrates its centennial, the long-dead Captain Blake and his crew from the Elizabeth Dane emerge from an otherworldly fog to claim their vengeance by taking six lives.

John Carpenter has stated that The Fog is his attempt at telling an old-fashioned EC Comics-style ghost story, plain and simple. While it certainly gives off a sweet let's huddle together under a blanket near the campfire for a scary story vibe, the movie is also undoubtedly 100% USDA prime John Carpenter.

Carpenter's earliest works, such as Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, and The Fog are a slow, slow burn. As a filmmaker, he is (or is that was?) a man of patience, unafraid to give audiences a slow and steady climb to the film's climax. Rather than being hit head-on with bombast from the get-go, Carpenter's audiences need to settle in for a long drive, and the resulting effect is simple: dread. Simple, I say, yet it's an element largely absent from most modern horror films. I don't know if audiences have changed over the last 25 years or if Hollywood has simply convinced audiences that they've changed, but horror is all jump cuts and gore now. Halloween went on for about an hour before the action really started- an hour that slowly filled audiences with tension as Michael Myers stalked Laurie Strode on the streets of Haddonfieldto the tune of Carpenter's haunting score. I'd hazard a guess that that patience on Carpenter's part is what you can expect to be missing from Rob Zombie's upcoming Halloween revamp. Instant gratification doesn't leave the viewer drowning in fear, but anticipation surely does. What I consider to be some of the finer modern horror films (The Blair Witch Project, Session 9, The Ring, and yes, The Descent) use this same slow approach to great effect.

However, this reliance on mood and atmosphere doesn't mean that The Fog is lacking in visceral thrills. While there's nothing explicitly shown in the movie, the ghostly crew of the Elizabeth Dane are a vicious lot. The crew of The Sea Grass are dispatched in short order by knives and hooks, and the fact that the audience sees virtually nothing doesn't make the scene any less brutal. The same can be said for the scene where poor Mrs. Kobritz answers the tap tap tap at her front door as the fog rolls in...the eerie black figures raise their weapons and it's bye bye Mrs. Kobritz! I tell ya, that sequence filled me with absolute terror when I was younger and it still gets under my skin now.

Visually, The Fog is a Carpenter masterpiece. Using his trademark anamorphic widescreen Panavision, Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey immerse and surround the viewer in Antonio Bay. Whether it's a sweeping shot of the coastline, a wide shot of Stevie Wayne (Barbeau) driving her righteous VW Thing, the glowing fog rolling into town, or the lighthouse where WKAB is located, the movie is simply beautiful to behold.

Is The Fog a perfect movie? Certainly not. There's some major plot holes and general "What the-?" moments that can only be explained away by cries of "It's supernatural, dammit!" But the movie does have style, and it works for me. I could go on and on about The Fog and all the reasons I love it, from Nancy Loomis's typically smartass turn as Sandy to Hal Holbrook's turn as the drunken Father Malone to the final showdown between Father Malone and Captain Blake over the bling.

Instead, though, I'll just leave it to the chilling words uttered by Stevie Wayne at the film's end. It's best if you try to imagine Adrienne Barbeau's sultry voice while you read it, trust me.

I don't know what happened to Antonio Bay tonight. Something came out of the fog and tried to destroy us. In one moment, it vanished. But if this has been anything but a nightmare, and if we don't wake up to find ourselves safe in our beds, it could come again. To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.


Clay McClane said...

I always thought 'The Fog' had about 30 minutes worth of actual story and all that extra time was so moody and more or less empty that my mind came up with a lot of scary stuff on its own. Yeah, not perfect, but damn good.

It also has one of the best backstories of all time, what with how the ghosts became the ghosts. Just 100% creepy.

Anonymous said...

I love The Fog as well. It is probably my favorite John Carpenter movie.

Anonymous said...

My fave John Carpenter movie is "The Thing." It's a near-perfect remake/reimagining. It really connects with the paranoia of the time in which it was made, which is something most great horror does.

The thing that's changes the most over the last 25 years is the world. Society has dumbed itself down so much. I don't know if we can truly blame MTV, but it's a good place to start. Instant gratification is the norm. The world won't wait for the slow build and the joys to be gained from such. Doesn't say much for the world's ability as a lover, eh?

Amanda By Night said...

The Fog is a GREAT movie. It freaks me out every time AND it's got Hal Holbrook. YAY! A God, for sure.

My favorite JC movies are not the most talked about but both Prince of Darkness and Someone's Watching Me are just a real good time.

I interviewed Carpenter once and he's a bit scary in person. He actually got on me (not literally!) for being a vegitarian! But he paid for my meal, so what the heck...

Amanda By Night

Stacie Ponder said...

When Carpenter's on, man is he on. His best movies have such a distinct vibe, it's like he's a little sub-genre all by himself. The Fog, The Thing, Halloween, Escape From NY, In the Mouth of Madness...they're all uniquely Carpenter.

I wonder what it is about his misses that make them such...well, misses. What's lacking in them that's there in his best work? I don't expect ANY filmmaker to have a perfect track record, but his average seems to be slipping.

On that note, can anyone explain Ghosts of Mars to me? I tried. I tried so very hard to get into it...

Amanda, did he blow cigarette smoke in your face during the meal? :D Pretty cool, though- dinner and a talk with Carpenter!

SikeChick said...

Add me as a lover of The Fog. I love JC's early work. The man just had IT.

I also totally agree about the instant gratification factor in current horror. I might even be one of the sheep who has been convinced that that's what a movie needs. While I like the old horror movies which relied more on plot than body count, I also get easily bored with current films that attempt convoluted story-telling. I think that's why I dislike most J-horror.

Stacie Ponder said...

Most people probably either love or hate J-Horror because of the storytelling...or lack thereof. I'm not super well-versed in the genre, but what I've seen I liked. They really aim for scares over plot, though, to the point where there's almost no story whatsoever; there might be one loose idea and then the movie just sort of goes. This approach works, I think, when the filmmaker can overcome that handicap and scare you so much you don't care there's no plot. I think Ju-On works.

It's not my favorite genre, though.

Anonymous said...

The last time (well, heck, first time, too)I saw THE FOG was when it first came out at the theater.
I thought it was really interesting that there was no blood in it, if I remember correctly. The grossest thing I remember was maggots crawling in one of the dead sailor's face, so I was impressed by Carpenter's conscious restraint.

His next film, ESCAPE FROM NY, he was still doing the no-gore discipline thing. Interesting, especially when the art direction had moments of (cool) grimness (like human heads mounted on parking meters).
But, in that fight in the ring with the big ass bald guy, Snake Plisskin buries, like, a pickaxe in the top of the guy's head-- and there's no blood!
Huh, thinks me. Which is why THE THING threw me when I saw it!

I haven't seen all of Carpenter's movies, but he does seem to have his off films. Although, he himself always seems to look like hell when I see footage of him, and I wonder if health is an issue, perhaps that's why he's inconsistent? PURELY speculative on my part-- don't want to start any rumors.

Anonymous said...

Since we're discussing THE FOG, I was thinking about atmosphere, including general creepiness, in horror films.

Shock seems to always trump atmosphere/dread/suspense in current horror movies-- maybe that's always been like that, but it definitely seems that way now.
That's why I was impressed with THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES. I saw it in a theater and thought, man, this is a creepy movie!

I had the great, GREAT fortune to work on an ULTRA low budget DV horror movie here in Buffalo, NY, called PRISON OF THE PSYCHOTIC DAMNED. The movie was fun as hell to make (a little nervewracking because the location, the Buffalo Central Terminal is scary at night-- and there were moments I had to strike lights in an empty dark room by myself (I was one of two PAs, hence) as the cast and crew went to the next set-up, armed with only a flashlight for illumination once I unplugged everything-- gulp!). But, the end results weren't as creepy as you'd hoped, which I chalk up to lack of money and time. But, it still sucks in hindsight.
The terminal mostly looks cool and creepy, but I don't think we ever milked the suspense out of the location like we could've.
I think generating suspense is a really intellectual exercise in manipulation, and it's easier to show gore and action.

So, lately, when I watch horror movies past and present, I'm looking for the suspenseful moments/sequences if any.
Moments like in ALIEN, when Harry Dean Stanton is looking for the cat, and he's heading for that one section of the ship, and we see this long, vertical opening of a doorway, leading only into darkness, and director Ridley Scott essentially just pushes us through that freaking door via a long tracking shot without a comforting cut to anything else! Son of a bitch!

Recently watched VIRUS with Jamie Lee Curtis, among others. There's a moment when we see this small spider-like robot deal scurrying by in this duct in the engine room.
There's a dude waiting in the engine room, as the others elsewhere check out this large, supposedly abandoned, ship. He starts to see some wires moving, inexpicably being dragged slowly into the duct. He nervously goes to investigate.
Here, I thought, was a case where they showed too much. It should have been just the wires moving and the guy wondering what the hell and having to check it out.
But instead we already have some idea of what it is, and what it was wasn't really that scary looking to be honest, just weird and unexplained. So now, our suspense is not what is it and how dangerous is it, but what is that tinkertoy spider gonna do when the guy goes snooping in the duct?

Haven't seen much J-horror. My impression is those films tend to have more atmospheric creepiness than our films.
But, I've only seen the U.S. version of THE RING. (And I was really nervous during the opening, especially that whole sequence with the open refrigerator door-- you kept waiting for something to appear behind that door!) And the Pang Bros.' THE EYE, which is actually Korean, I think. But that was pretty good. And from what I've heard, the U.S. DARK WATER is a creepy film foremost, so I have to check that out (plus Jennifer Connelly is HOT). But, DARK WATER was directed by a Brazilian, Walter Salles, who did the MOTORCYCLE DIARIES. So, that may explain that, a different cultural sensibilty?.

Sorry for my longwindedness. My wife always yells at me for my bad netiquette.

Anonymous said...

The Fog is definitely one of my favorite Carpenter films. I don't think it gets enough credit.

Anonymous said...

Your 3rd paragraph says it all. The Fog was the 2nd DVD I ever bought (after I wore out the VHS version) and only because it wasn't out on DVD yet when I got a player.

That movie just never gets old no matter how many times I've watched it. If there were a way to transport into a movie, this would be the one I'd choose.

So yeah, I'm the guy that did the Dallas Mary Ellen Google search to find you, so I guess we should probably start sending out the wedding invitations, no?

rufus t. firefly said...

i always thought it was quite interesting that a lot of people were disapointed by "the fog" when it first came out saying that it was carpenters first bad movie after the supposed brilliance of his 2 previous films where-as i always thought that "the fog" was a much better film than the ludicrously over-rated "assault on precinct 13" and at least the equal of the slightly over-rated "halloween".

jervaise brooke hamster said...

stacie, just to put things into perspective, "ghosts of mars" and "prince of darkness" may be garbage but they are still 100 times better than anything the british film industry has ever produced.

dementia13 said...

I don't know John Carpenter, so I could be off base here, but I've long held a theory as to his inconsistency. Every time I see a picture of him, he looks extra-crispy. I'm not anti-drug, but one can overdo the chronic, and I think that's what's going on with him. I believe that if he took a break and dried out for a while, maybe got one of those blood transplants the Stones used to get, the ideas would start to flow again.

Of course, the blood would have to be pre-tested with a pair of electrodes, to make sure that it's not...contaminated.

There's also a comic-book sensibility to much of his work. When it works, it's a lot of fun, but when it doesn't, he can turn into Jess Franco pretty quickly.