The Fog (1980) ***½
John Carpenter’s first film after his breakthrough success with Halloween was also his first delving into the domain of the overtly supernatural. A strange amalgam of the traditional ghost story and the modern zombie movie (together with maybe just a dash of inspiration from The Crawling Eye), The Fog is one of the more distinctive horror films of the early 1980’s. It suffers a bit from an ending that somehow feels both rushed and unnecessarily prolonged, and viewers who value plot cohesion and narrative structure above all else are apt to be driven crazy by it, but fans of surreal and frankly irrational European-style horror should find much to appreciate.
April 20th, 1980— 11:55 pm. A group of boys from the Northern California seaside town of Antonio Bay are gathered on the escarpment overlooking Spivey point, listening to an old sailor named Machen (John Houseman, from Ghost Story and Rollerball) as he spins spooky yarns about the sea. His last tale for the evening concerns the wreck of the Elizabeth Dane, a clipper ship that went down 100 years ago this night, right off Spivey Point at the stroke of twelve. There had been a sudden onset of dense fog, and in their efforts to get clear of it, the crew sailed their ship toward a fire they saw on the shore. There were shoals between them and the sea cliffs, however, and the Elizabeth Dane tore herself to pieces on the rocks; then the fog vanished as suddenly as it descended. Not a man aboard survived, and the fishermen of Antonio Bay contend that the malevolent fog will return someday, bringing the angry ghosts of the drowned crew with it.
April 21st, 1980— 12:00 midnight. Father Richard Malone (Hal Holbrook, of Creepshow and The Unholy) is alone in his church on Beacon Hill when a stone suddenly drops out of the wall in his study, revealing in the exposed crevice the century-old journal of his grandfather, Patrick, the Beacon Hill church’s original priest. Meanwhile, there is a strange incident at a grocery store in town; the pay phones out front all begin ringing at once, and the bottles on the shelves inside start vibrating against each other, many of them shaking themselves or their neighbors to destruction. At 12:04, a similar disturbance strikes a nearby service station; a gas pump turns itself on, flooding the tarmac out front, while the lift in the garage elevates a car awaiting repairs nearly to the ceiling. At 12:05, Sandy Fadel (Nancy Loomis, from Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween), personal assistant to Antonio Bay Centennial Committee chairwoman Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh, from Night of the Lepus and Psycho), is awakened when her car alarm suddenly begins to sound. About two minutes later, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins, from Bruiser and Night of the Creeps) stops to pick up Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis, of Terror Train and Prom Night), an artist from Pasadena who is hitchhiking her way north to Vancouver. At about 12:12, Nick and Elizabeth get a serious shock as all the windows in Castle’s truck shatter for no apparent reason. Around 12:15, meteorologist Dan O’Bannon (Charles Cyphers, of Hunter’s Blood and Escape from New York) calls KAB radio DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau, from Swamp Thing and Burial of the Rats) to report a heavy fogbank rolling in from the ocean, on course to engulf the fishing trawler Sea Grass; Stevie dutifully announces the impending danger over the air. Shortly thereafter, Sea Grass captain Al Williams (John Goff, from Alligator and The Capture of Bigfoot)— Kathy’s husband— and his two mates (James Canning and George “Buck” Flower, from The Witch Who Came from the Sea and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS) see the fog closing in on them. Once inside it, the little boat has a close brush with a wooden sailing ship of antique design, running with only its topsails unfurled. While the three fishermen attempt to wrap their minds around the unexpected sight, the Sea Grass is boarded by several silent, menacing men. The latter seize the fishermen, and murder all three of them. At about 12:45, Dan rings Stevie again to say that the fog is drifting back out to sea; Stevie doesn’t see how that’s possible, as her weathervane at the radio station (located in the old lighthouse at the very tip of Spivey Point) registers a strong wind blowing due east. Just before 1:00 am— the official conclusion of the witching hour— Nick and Elizabeth (who are now in bed together at Nick’s place) are interrupted by an insistent knock at the front door; no one is there when Nick answers the knock just seconds after the stroke of 1:00.
The bizarre, frightening, and deadly events of April 21st’s opening hour are just a taste of what’s to come. Early the following morning, Stevie’s son, Andy (Halloween II’s Ty Mitchell)— who was part of Old Man Machen’s rapt audience— has his attention captured by a curious gleam from amid a pile of rocks while he’s playing on the beach. Closer inspection reveals the gleam to come from a gold coin, but in the moment it takes Andy to make a grab for it, a wave comes in and covers the rocks. There’s no coin anymore when the water recedes, but there is a piece of driftwood that was obviously part of a ship at one time. It’s a fragment of planking, and the word “Dane” is still legible on what must have been its outer surface. Andy, though understandably disappointed at the disappearance of the coin, thinks the weathered old plank is neat enough to bring home with him— an impulse decision that will lead to his mom having an extremely spooky moment with the object when she unaccountably brings it to work with her that evening.
Meanwhile, Nick, who turns out to be a close friend of Al Williams, is very disturbed to learn that the Sea Grass never returned to port last night. Elizabeth, by now smitten with Nick, tags along as he takes his own boat out to hunt for the Sea Grass, and she comes aboard with him after they find the missing vessel adrift maybe twenty miles out from the shore. Nick therefore has a second pair of eyes on hand to corroborate the seemingly impossible sight that confronts him below decks on Al’s boat. Although the decks are all dry, everything within the hull is waterlogged and corroded, as if the Sea Grass had spent weeks on the sea floor. The same is true of the one body they find aboard, which is covered in algae and salt-water rot despite its owner having been killed above water only hours before. Even more inexplicably, this body briefly returns to life in the medical examiner’s operating room, but drops dead again before it can do anything more than scare the bejesus out of Elizabeth.
Some semblance of an explanation for the unnatural goings-on surfaces when Kathy Williams and Sandy Fadel go to see Father Malone about giving the benediction at tonight’s centennial festivities. Malone has been reading his granddad’s diary, and he is extremely disturbed by what he has learned. Everyone in town knows that Antonio Bay was founded in the aftermath of the Elizabeth Dane’s sinking, apparently with money fronted by one of the doomed ship’s passengers, but Grandpa Patrick’s journal puts a more sinister spin on the old story. Blake, the town’s benefactor, was the head of a leper colony, and he had hoped to relocate from a tiny island to a spot on the mainland about a mile away from Malone’s church. Blake bought the land from Patrick Malone and a consortium of five farmers, but once they’d met Blake, the men could not bear to imagine him setting up shop with his diseased followers so close at hand. They set that fire above the shoals deliberately in the hope of luring the Elizabeth Dane to its destruction, and their wish was granted in full. Malone is not merely depressed and outraged to learn that his little town owes its existence to an act of mass murder, and that his own grandfather had a hand in it. He goes so far as to declare Antonio Bay cursed, and to refuse any participation in Kathy’s anniversary celebration. Father Malone is thus the only one who’ll really understand what’s going on when the fog returns come sunset, bringing with it a shipload of murderous revenants. This is not to say, however, that he’ll have any very clear idea of what to do about it.
Carpenter was once quoted as saying that Halloween was his “Argento movie.” In the same spirit, The Fog might usefully be thought of as Carpenter’s Fulci film. Once the premise has been set up and the invasion of the vengeful dead set in motion, there is virtually no plot as such. Instead, The Fog presents us with a succession of set-pieces linked not by any sort of story logic, but by geography and sheer happenstance. The different groups of characters (Stevie and her son, Nick and Elizabeth, Kathy and Sandy, Father Malone) have very little interaction with each other, and Carpenter simply bounces around among them recording their successive brushes with the supernatural. And most of the time, those brushes with the supernatural resolutely refuse to make sense except on the level of a nightmare. Some might find it incredibly irritating, and I can understand that. But since each individual scene is so well realized without reference to any other, I find it easy to sit back and drift with the current, as it were. To me, The Fog plays like one of those arty slice-of-life movies, only with all the usual boring bullshit about people’s unremarkable existences interrupted before it’s even gotten properly underway by a sudden attack from an army of undead lepers. It’s as if Carpenter looked fifteen years into the future, read my mind, and made the movie I was fantasizing about while watching Slacker.