This blog was written as part of the John Carpenter Week at Radiator Heaven.
The Fog (1980) is often overlooked when discussion turns to the best of John Carpenter, yet it is something of an underrated gem, snuggled between the more successful Halloween and Escape from New York. As a great lover of traditional ghost stories, however, I have always ranked The Fog as my favourite Carpenter movie. It was the very first horror movie that I bluffed my way into a cinema to see, and it scared the hell out of me. I ended up sitting next to the closed door, in the dark, at the bottom of the auditorium. Bad placing in this movie, trust me. Ghost stories are always best kept simple, with simple scares, and The Fog obeys this rule eloquently.
Antonio Bay, a small coastal town in California, is about to celebrate its centennial. However, on the eve of celebration the town priest discovers a dark secret about the founding of Antonio Bay and the curse that has been put upon it. Then the fog rolls in and brings something else with it, looking for revenge for a 100-year-old crime.
Big on atmosphere and complemented by one of Carpenter’s finest soundtracks, The Fog is a glorious exercise in plain, old-fashioned spooky. Made on a shoestring budget, not unusual for a Carpenter movie, it wasn’t the easiest of productions. Carpenter has admitted that the first cut of The Fog was hugely disappointing, even going so far as to state, ‘This was the lowest point I had come to in my professional career’. Together with his editor Tommy Lee Wallace, he set about shooting additional material, including a new opening scene.
Antonio Bay, 11:55pm on the 20th April. Old sea dog Mr. Madchen is entertaining (or scaring the hell out of) a group of children with ghost stories around the campfire. They are five minutes away from the Bay’s cenntenial, and Mr. Madchen has one more story to tell. This one is close to home…
Why I Love It
The great pleasure of the ghost story is the simple act of telling, or being told, one. Storytelling, around a glowing fire at night, is one of man’s oldest activities. Few movies convey that simple pleasure, and no movie has done a better job than The Fog. Dear old John Houseman, who would tell more ghost stories the following year in the aptly titled Ghost Story, has the kind of tranquil, seasoned voice that could make any story come alive. He certainly does this one justice, even going so far as to make us jump with his fob watch. It certainly got me the first time around, in that darkened cinema, and just look at those wide-eyed kids! Bastard!
There’s a moment, as the kids sit there rapt and attentive, that always makes me smile. Mr. Madchen tells them that the drowned crew of the Elizabeth Dane will come back and look for the campfire that drew them to their deaths. At that moment, they all cast nervous glances to the fire they are sitting beside. A little moment of Spielberg-worthy magic.
John Carpenter has always been a curious rarity as a filmmaker. Not only does he direct and, more often than not, write his movies but he also composes and performs the soundtracks. I consider The Fog to be Carpenter’s finest work in this area. He uses his synth piano keys sparingly in this opening scene, subtly enhancing the atmosphere. As a backing to Houseman’s fireside tale, it is perfectly eerie.
The Title Shot
As Mr. Madchen finishes his story, we pan up to see a view of Antonio Bay. Carpenter uses the lonely sounds of a deserted beach, with the wind and the town clock chimes, to chilling effect. And just look at that place. Dark and foreboding, would you want to be there? Not exactly cosy, is it? There is something intrinsically unsettling about a deserted, isolated beach at night. At least there is to me. It is the perfect setting for a ghost story, and Carpenter uses it masterfully in this opening scene.
Mr. Madchen’s Story
‘Eleven fifty-five. Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before twelve, just to keep us warm. In five minutes it will be the 21st of April.
One hundred years ago on the 21st of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot ahead of them. And then, they saw a light. My God, it was a fire burning on the shore. Strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks. The hull sheared in two. The mast snapped like a twig. And the wreckage sank with all the men aboard.
At the bottom of the sea lay the Elizabeth Dane with her crew, their lungs filled with salt water, their eyes open and staring into the darkness. And above, as suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted, receded back across the ocean and never came again. But it is told by the fishermen and their fathers and grandfathers that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point, will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark, icy death.
Twelve o’clock. The 21st of April.’