After the success of Halloween, John Carpenter returned to horror once more with a traditional ghost story. Co-written with producer Debra Hill, The Fog opens with old Mr. Machen (John Houseman) telling a group of kids around a fire the eerie tale of the clipper ship Elizabeth Dane that sank off the coast of their town nearly a century ago. He doesn’t know it yet, but as the Antonio Bay centennial celebration is approaching, the ghosts from his tale are indeed returning to seek revenge.
Like the title implies, The Fog asks the question: what if something lurked within the blanket of fog that rolled into town? Something supernatural and hellbent on retribution.
Released wide in theaters on February 8, 1980, Carpenter’s spooky tale of seafaring ghosts turns 40 today.
In the days leading up to the town’s centennial celebration, strange things happen at night that coincide with the appearance of a dense fog bank. Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) has the windows of his truck blown out inexplicably shortly after picking up hitchhiker Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis). The son of local radio DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau, making her theatrical feature debut) finds a piece of driftwood marked “Dane” while exploring the shore. Town priest Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) discovers an old journal hidden within the church walls after a seismic anomaly, and its pages contain the awful truth about the town’s origins. The fishermen of the Sea Grass fall victim to the ghosts in grim fashion.
The town founders intentionally lured the Elizabeth Dane to its doom. Its owner, Blake, was a wealthy leper seeking to establish a colony a little too close to the town that would become Antonio Bay. The founders snuffed out the ship and its crew and stole the gold to establish their town and its church. A century later, Blake and his crew float in with the fog to claim six lives out of vengeance for the lives they lost.
In hindsight, it’s not surprising that Stevie Wayne became the fan-favorite breakout character. Aside from Wayne’s soothing voice and Barbeau’s spirited portrayal of her, Wayne is the most connected to the horror. Her radio station is nestled in the lighthouse, giving her a unique vantage point to the fog. Her role as a DJ means she’s the most connected to the townsfolk, too. Moreover, she has the highest personal stakes of the cast as the single mother trying to warn the town and keep her son safe from a distance.
Father Malone retreats in terror for most of the film after reading the diary, and town figure Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) and her assistant Sandy (Nancy Loomis) have such basic motivation that they exist to allow Malone to recount exposition. Nick and his new lady love offer up more opportunities for scares as Nick seeks out answers on the missing crew of the Sea Grass. It’s this limited view of Antonio Bay that makes The Fog feel like the intimate ghost story that it is.
There tends to be a negative knee-jerk response to the idea of a film undergoing reshoots, and The Fog makes for a prime example of why reshoots aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Carpenter’s initial cut didn’t show the ghosts, at least not during their attack on the Sea Grass, and the deaths weren’t very violent. The climax didn’t seem as thrilling either, so all of this was punched up in the reshoots- gory deaths were added, as was Wayne’s suspenseful showdown with the ghosts, and seeing more of those ghosts fleshed out the feature.
The ghost of Blake was played by the film’s special makeup effects artist Rob Bottin, who would shortly after go on to work with Carpenter on The Thing. His ghostly crew was comprised of production designer and film editor Tommy Lee Wallace and various grips.
While Dean Cundey’s cinematography, Carpenter’s direction, and the scenic landscapes all make The Fog feel more luxurious than its meager budget, what makes the film so memorable isn’t the visuals, but the sound. The Fog is an aural ghost story conveyed through Carpenter’s score, the soothing sound of Wayne’s voice on the radio, and the sound design. Most important of all, though, is the recurring theme and tradition of telling ghost stories. From the opening tale by the fire, Father Malone’s recounting of a horrific town secret, Nick Castle telling Elizabeth of a ghost story his father once shared with him, and even to Wayne’s closing monologue, sharing stories is vital in The Fog. Stories have power, but they must be passed on so their lessons retain value.
It’s the emphasis of oral storytelling and reliance on sound to carry the horror that makes The Fog so different. Carpenter traded streamlined slasher suspense for atmosphere and aural-based terror. Inspired by the ghost stories he grew up with during his childhood, The Fog brought old-fashioned paranormal horror that still holds up four decades later.
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