Saturday 25 October 2014
Wag The Fog
Directed by John Carpenter
Optimum UK Blu Ray Zone B
“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.”
Stevie Wayne, KAB Radio, Antonio Bay
I really love John Carpenter’s The Fog. It’s not just one of my all time favourite horror movies, it’s also... asides from a few things I’ll point out here... an almost perfect movie in its own right and one which I put on nowadays if I just want to watch a nice, relaxing movie full of beauty and colour. I think one of the reasons I still carry this movie around inside of me may be partially because of the circumstances in which I first came to see it.
It must have been the early to mid 1980s when it was first shown on TV in the UK. I would have been maybe 16 or 17 years old and, although I was already a fan of the director’s science fiction movies Dark Star, and the then recent cinema release of Escape From New York, I’d not seen Carpenter’s “horror movies” before (although I was no stranger to the Horror genre, having watched various Universal and Hammer classics from around 4 to 6 years of age). For some reason, my parents were out of the house. I think they must have been at some kind of party and they were due back around the small hours. The Fog was showing fairly late at night (it may have even been a midnight showing for the BBC... can’t quite remember) and I was all alone in a dark house, sitting down by myself to watch this movie...
And it was brilliant... nail-bitingly suspenseful and I instantly knew three things once I’d got done watching it...
1) I was in love with Adrienne Barbeau and wanted to be her boyfriend/sex slave, 2) I wanted to see more of this director’s movies and 3) I needed to buy a long playing record of the music, if I could get my hands on such a thing. Alas, I only was ever able to tick off the second and third things on that task list over the years but still have high hopes for Adrienne Barbeau if the lady ever visits the UK.
The Fog is all about a cursed town, Antonio Bay, celebrating its one hundredth anniversary. It’s also about a gang of supernatural pirates/lepers visiting their revenge, 100 years on, to the six original conspirators who built the town using their money before sending them to their death because they didn’t want a leper colony setting up near them. And by revenge, I mean the spectral pirates want their gold back and they want to violently kill the conspirators’ living descendents.
Now, before I go any further, it has to be said that in some ways the plot of this movie is full of more holes than the leaky driftwood from the ghost pirates ship which washes ashore and does strange, supernatural things. The opening set up of a montage of mysterious occurrences happening around Antonio Bay as the credits roll is almost straight out of the early parts of Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind... with various inanimate objects suddenly coming to life on their own and frightening people. It’s probably not a sequence which would play well in front of a modern cinema audience, I suspect, but it was an effective way to set up the idea that crazy happenings are afoot. However, other than a stone block in a church knocked loose and giving the character of Father Malone (played by Hal Holbrook) an explanation, by way of a written historical account, for the killings which are about to start happening throughout the course of the movie, the majority of this opening montage seems to have absolutely nothing to do with any logical ties to the actual idea that the ghosts of a colony of leper ridden pirates is coming to take revenge, 100 years on from their death.
And that’s the one thing about this movie which is something you have to forgive it for... a lot of the scares don’t make that much sense. The pirates are using the glowing fog of the film’s title to move around in but... the fog isn’t present in the first round of supernatural happenings at the start of the movie. Now I’m told a lot of the scenes were shot and then added in a matter of a few weeks or so leading up to the release of the film after negative feedback on the initial cut and I suspect that some of those extra scenes might have been put in to spice up the thrills without actually making a whole lot of sense, if you see what I mean.
For example, Jamie Lee Curtis, fresh from her success in John Carpenter’s earlier film phenomenon Halloween (not a film I particularly like that much, for some reason) here plays a drifter named Elisabeth who hooks up with Tom Aitken’s character Nick... who’s a local fisherman. This is good plotting in terms of Aitken’s profession because it means these two characters can give a window into some of the strange things happening and provide the jump scares when provided. After they discover the corpse of one of Aitken’s deceased friends, completely dry but with lungs filled with water (the pirates got him in an earlier scene of suspenseful scariness) we are later witness to a scene in the morgue where Jamie is frightened by the reanimated corpse of the guy trying to end her life with a scalpel. I’m pretty sure this was an insert sequence and, I have to say, it seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the story. It does, however, feature a key Carpenter signature in that the scary thing is happening in the background of the shot, quite visibly but slightly out of focus, while the main character is oblivious and in sharp focus in the foreground of the shot... which is the kind of thing which “gets an audience going”, it seems to me.
A similar non-sequitur of an idea occurs in the presence of our other main lead actress, Adrienne Barbeau, here playing disc jockey Stevie Wayne, who broadcasts her nightly programme to Antonio Bay from a secluded lighthouse. Her son finds a piece of driftwood bearing the name of the ship which was originally the vessel belonging to the pirates (we get a glimpse of the ship in an earlier scene when three fishermen are slaughtered in their boat by the fog bound pirates). At one point some sea water starts oozing from the driftwood and into Stevie’s tape deck before inhabiting the demo tapes she is listening to with a creepy voice and then catching fire. After she’s put the thing out with an extinguisher there’s no real sign that anything just occurred but, more worryingly from my point of view, no real reason for this ghostly apparition to be happening in front of her in the first place anyway.
It matters not though because this film manages to scare up the chills and when the town is attacked properly by The Fog and the spectral pirates lurking inside, you won’t really be contemplating stuff like this if it’s a first time watch for you.
Apart from having an amazingly sexy and relaxed voice (“Ahoy, mateys.”), Stevie’s character is also a brilliant one in that she serves a purpose. She has hardly any scenes with anyone else apart from as a voice on the radio or telephone to them (barring one brief scene with her son) and she’s kind of a key role in the film because she works out that the fog is dangerous and, from her lighthouse, she can see just which parts of town it’s attacking from. The climax of the movie becomes essentially a three hander cutting between Stevie Wayne who is being attacked by pirates in her lighthouse, Elizabeth and Nick who are trying to rescue Stevie’s son from the warning she is screaming over the airwaves and the duo of Mrs. Williams (played by Janet Leigh) and her assistant (played by Nancy Loomis, as she was known in the days Carpenter was using her as an actress).
Just before Stevie retreats to the slanted, slippery roof of her lighthouse to ward off attacks from two pirates, who are presumably there because they either listen to the radio and know she’s got them pegged or... you know... for no good reason actually pertaining to the plot, Stevie gets everyone to converge at a certain place in town, the church of Father Malone (the descendant of the sixth conspirator) and we are treated to a Night Of The Living Dead style lock-down and siege sequence (almost certainly inspired by one of Carpenter’s favourite John Ford westerns) which includes on screen scenes featuring real life mother and daughter Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Leigh and Tony Curtis, naturally). Of course, if the pirates manage to kill Stevie in addition to Father Malone then they end up with a body count of seven, which makes no sense whatsoever to the plot about six conspirators but, you know, who am I to judge?
What I can judge is that this film is both absolutely scary and taut with suspense sequences put together by a director who is an absolute master of his craft and shows just exactly why he is with this movie. The Fog is also really beautiful to look at with some phenomenally clean framing and some beautiful colours thrown together within the cinematography. And on top of that it’s got a great double ending with one of my favourite pieces of postmodern horror homage of all time. It’s the second from last scene, coming right before the inevitable twist ending that involves a few more pirates. Stevie is back on the microphone in her lighthouse as soon as the attacks have stopped... warning people about The Fog in exactly the same tone and with the same sense of the dramatic as the original “one character broadcasting to the outside world” ending of the original The Thing From Another World, which Carpenter would soon remake himself as The Thing. I’ve printed Adrien Barbeau’s end monologue from The Fog right at the start of this review to set the mood. Here’s what Douglas Spencer’s Scotty character had to say as a wrap up in The Thing From Another World...
“And now before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning: Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”
The delivery’s a bit similar too and this pleases me a lot. It’s good to hear a piece of dialogue in a film like The Fog and hear it hold up on its own plus know exactly the kind of tone the director was going for. In both movies, that kind of downbeat warning of possible future doom in the face of victory gives them both a haunting edge which has a lot of appeal for even the most jaded horror movie fan.
And the final cherry on the cake is the fantastic musical score on this one... one of many written and partially performed by John Carpenter himself. If you are one of those people who think synthesiser soundtracks don’t work in the movies then watch this and think again. The haunting three note theme* which opens the movie and plays out during the quieter moments of the film is quite a hook... but when you add in the intense high pitched alarm sounds and the whooshing textures which are presumably musical reminders of the presence of the fog, youre ears are in for one hell of a ride with a score that goes from mellow, relaxing cues to out and out “get me the f*** out of here at just the right moments. I always used to take a copy of this score with me if I went to a holiday on the coast... still do in fact. It’s a perfect score to play when you’ve got a dark night and can gaze out at the sea with a glass of whisky in your hand (or a nice cuppy tea). When I first used to take it along on my holidays it was a recording of my old Colosseum vinyl album onto a magnetic cassette in my old Sony Walkman. Then, as the years flew by, my soundtrack to The Fog got converted to a CD walkman, a mini disc player and, nowadays, after there have been a fair few expanded editions of this excellent score, it’s always to be found somewhere on my iPod classic for emergency coastal visits. I wouldn’t want to be without it because it captivates the atmosphere very quickly.
A quick note about the UK Optimum Blu Ray release of this one. Frankly, I wish I’d have bought the US Blu Ray which would have matched my previous American edition DVD with absolutely loads of extras and a much better transfer of it than can be found on the UK one. The UK one seems way too luminous and colourful than it should be in certain areas and there’s an unforgivable sound error at a key point which renders the scary jump moment, and the musical stinger used to punctuate it, almost useless. Stick with the DVD if you are buying a UK edition until they decide to bring out a better one for our Blu Ray market. Or better yet, just grab a multi-region/multi zone player and grab a copy from the US... that would solve the problem.
So there you have it. One of my favourite horror movies which, even with the slight plot holes that seem almost solely to be there to serve the scary bits, is an absolute masterpiece mixing solid acting, impeccable direction, timing and editing, jump scares pitched against the slowly creeping dread kind of horror and, when all is said and done, an absolutely terrific score... one of the greatest in cinema history in my opinion (and I don’t think it’s ever been a bad seller in any of its many incarnations either). If you are a fan of films in general then you might want to put on The Fog one dark night so you can see how expertly Carpenter makes you forget the logistics of the plot and controls your emotional stakes in the characters (I’m told the remake is ghastly so maybe don’t bother with that one). If you are a fan of horror movies and you’ve never seen this absolute classic... what the heck are you waiting for? It needs to be the very next movie you see... you won’t be watching it just once.
*with thanks to @katrinjenny of twitter for reminding me that the score is partially based on a three note theme.