It may not be the scariest film out there, but after many viewings, John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) is still a film that I go back to, because it is a classic ghost story. Unlike many films being released at the time, it relies heavily on suspense rather than blood and gore. This approach serves this movie in two ways: the story remains inviting and entertaining upon each viewing and it hasn’t become stale or dated. The story, which was inspired by real-life events – an eerie fog witnessed by John Carpenter and writer/producer Debra Hill while visiting Stonehenge and a shipwreck in the mid-1800s in California – as well as a 1958 film, The Trollenberg Terror, lend to the ability of the audience to suspend their disbelief and become lost in the characters and the fog.
Old Mr. Machen (John Houseman) tells a group of children gathered around a beach campfire one last ghost story before the bewitching hour of midnight to 1 AM. Machen relates the events of one hundred years prior in which an unnatural fog appeared. A clipper ship carrying a group of men saw the guiding light of a campfire, but instead of finding safety, the ship wrecked on the rocks of Spivey Point and all the men were drowned. And, just as in the ghost story, a glowing fog rolled into San Antonio Bay, coinciding with the day of the coastal town’s 100th birthday celebration.
The origin of the town is revealed to be founded on the treachery of six conspirators that intentionally caused the Elizabeth Dane to shipwreck. A wealthy man named Blake (Rob Bottlin), who was afflicted with leprosy, wanted to settle nearby with other lepers. Blake met with Father Patrick Malone to broker safe passage; however, the priest double-crossed him and after the deed was done, the conspirators plundered the wreck. The money funded the town and the local church. Grandson and also a priest like his ancestor, Father Robert Malone (Hal Holbrook) proclaims, “The celebration tonight is a travesty. We’re honoring murderers.” Spurned by vengeance, the ghosts of Blake and his men, who appear as revenants (visible ghosts in animated corpse form), return to haunt the town and claim six lives.
A Classic Ghost Story
What makes The Fog a classic is that Carpenter focused on telling a story. He kept superfluous details to a minimum, just enough to flesh out the handful of characters to build credibility and keep the audience engaged in their survival or demise. In the documentary Tales from the Mist – Inside The Fog, Carpenter discussed how important it was to not pile on the details but rather to focus on the moment so that the audience would follow him. As a director who excelled in the genre, The Fog represented his value to and understanding of horror. Taking a page from H.P. Lovecraft’s cache of writing techniques in which he would not quite provide a full reveal of the terror lurking just around the corner, allowing the reader’s mind to fill in their own interpretation of the hidden horror, Carpenter hid his ghosts in a swirling mass of glowing fog with a faint rattling of heavy chains and the gurgling sounds of a person drowning. Other than a late addition of a close up of the maggot face, which doesn’t fit with the motif of ghosts rising from a watery grave, there is very little visual gore. Yet, he evokes from the audience many tense moments of fear throughout this 89-minute film.
One of the interesting aspects of this film to come to light in preparation for this retrospective is the fact that Blake’s story was told multiple times. The first was told by Mr. Machen in the opening sequence of the film as he tells the children of a shipwreck, which does not disclose the full extent of the real events. The second time comes from the diary of Father Patrick Malone, the true story, which expands on Machen’s version. The third time is a fragmented narrative, as though the presence of the ghosts has broken down the town founders’ lie, overheard at the lighting ceremony as part of the town’s centennial celebration. Additional details are provided through related strange events: Andy (Ty Mitchell) seeing the coin and then the broken bit of the ship; Nick (Tom Atkins) sharing the story of his father finding a Spanish coin on an abandoned ship; Dr. Phibes (Darwin Joston) while discussing the decomposition of the young divers that had gone missing at a shipwreck; and the haunting voice on the demo tape that Stevie is listening to as she prepares for her evening radio broadcast. Each provide an additional depth to the ghost story rather reminiscent of early horror classics by M.R. James and Wilkie Collins.
Carpenter assembled an incredible cast that brought a level of seriousness to their roles that complements the story. Veteran actors such as Janet Leigh (Psycho) as the town mayor Kathy Williams, Hal Holbrook (Lincoln) as Father Robert Malone, and a guest appearance by John Houseman (The Paper Chase) as Mr. Machen who spins the first version of the ghost story. Nick, Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), Sandy (Nancy Loomis), Dan (Charles Cyphers), and Stevie are everyday characters that easily could represent the viewers and hence, impart believability of the story. For example, we feel the same concern from Stevie as she watches in horror that her son Andy is likely to perish as the fog envelopes her house, followed by her tearful plea that her son forgive her for not being there for him, because she needed to be the sentinel for the town. Later, when Stevie fights off two ghosts on the roof of the lighthouse, it is such a tension-filled, hold one’s breath moment. Barbeau’s performance as a strong female lead stands out and would be a worthy “final girl;” however, in this film, the ensemble cast as a whole elevates the film and makes it memorable.
One other character cannot be forgotten and that is the fog itself. Its eerie glow as it moves across the ocean and into San Antonio Bay contributes to its sinister presence. And the way the fog obscures the ghosts from plain view adds to the mystery and dangerousness of Blake and his men. Just flashes of hooks, rods, and swords that strike out from the fog heighten the anticipation of that moment in which the act of long-festering vengeance is sated.
Sound and Vision
The sounds and silences are striking for this film. After the bells strike midnight, strange events commence in the sleepy town. There is no musical accompaniment as the grocery clerk (John Strobel) sweeps up the aisles (Carpenter’s sets up a fantastic shot tracking the clerk’s progress via two round mirrors mounded in the store’s ceiling.), bottles begin to shake on the shelves, a gas pump nozzle falls out of its cradle and starts releasing petrol as the pump pings in unison, a line of cars flash their lights as their horns blare loudly, a chair scraps across a living room’s hardwood floor, a dog barks, and a car alarm sounds. Each element adds to a cacophony of sounds that creates an audio clamor that is unsettling. Then, it is silent again save for the squeaking sound from a lopsided-hanging sign in the store where the discord began. It is such an effective use of everyday items that should not create fear, but in Carpenter’s story, it contributes to his goal of creating a scary tale.
Having signed a two-film deal with AVCO Embassy Pictures, Carpenter had a larger budget at his disposal. One of his decisions was to shoot on a sound stage for some of the scenes, such as the opening campfire scene and Stevie fending off the ghosts on top of the lighthouse roof, which allowed him to control lighting and mood; however, he also used anamorphic film. Carpenter explained in the Tales from the Mist – Inside The Fog documentary that the choice gave the film a “grander look and contributed to the classic story.” The choice resulted in a richer visual experience which endowed shots with not only engaging focal points, but allowed the background to present story elements to the audience, especially when setting up the next scary, tense moment.
Carpenter’s compositions in his early films contribute to his desire to keep it simple and focused. His music accentuated the action and presented an audio mood for the audience. Often minimal in approach, he relied on a synthesizer to produce trademark music in this and many of his other films. For example, the rhythmic beats count the passage of time and the approach of danger as Andy and Mrs. Kobritz (Regina Waldon) determine what to do. The beats change, taking on a metallic tone as the fog comes for Stevie at the lighthouse, which foreshadows Stevie’s showdown on its roof. Carpenter does not overwhelm with his compositions in The Fog and instead, complements the film with a variety of musical selections, since a radio station features in the storyline. In fact, he has less of his music included in the film, but when he does, it shines in the right places.
The Fog was shot on a 30-day schedule at a cost of $1.1 million back in the summer of 1979. Although not a runaway success at the time, it did make over $21 million. Over the year, it has built a bit of a cult following and is often on the top lists of horror films for the decade. (An Esquire list put The Fog at No. 8.) Coming on the heels of his slasher film, Halloween (1978), The Fog turned away from the blood and explored the suspenseful and ethereal nature of ghosts. Instead of misty figures lacking substance, Carpenter’s ghosts ride in on a scary, pulsating fog that is anything but natural and is fueled by vengeance for a wrong committed and long buried behind plaster and below the murky depths of Spivey Point - all the makings of a time-honored scary ghost story that delivers every time.
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 do not wake up to find ourselves in our beds, it could come again.
~ Stevie Wayne
Gottlieb Walker, Kim. On Set with John Carpenter: The Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker, London, UK: Titan Books, 2014.
Schwarz, Jeffrey. “Tales from the Mist – Inside The Fog.” The Fog. Special Edition DVD. Directed by John Carpenter. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment, 2002.
The Fog. Directed by John Carpenter. 1980. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment, 2002, Special Edition DVD