Frightful tales told around a campfire connect people with a more primitive form of horror, the kind that hearkened back to our oral culture.
In The Fog, the Exemplar of Elocution John Houseman plays Mr. Machen, who is regaling local kids with an inappropriately gruesome yarn about lost sailors.
In 1980, John Carpenter already had his sea legs, having directed the super-cool Assault on Precinct 13 and the transcendent Halloween. He’s as close to a can’t miss director as there is, as even his duds are OK (In the Mouth of Madness). The Fog is probably somewhere in that category as well, despite the stunning widescreen cinematography, the quirky story and the neat performances.
For a film named after inclement weather, the real horror is derived from chimerical sailor-pirates, menacing the residents of Antonio Bay, California, about to celebrate the fishing village’s centenary.
It turns out lo those years ago, six of the city founders were not heroic figures, but buccaneers who’d raided and plundered a vessel known as the Elizabeth Dane. A wooden piece of its hull, washes up on the town’s beach and an exuberant youngster Andy brings it home to mommy, the resident radio DJ (Stevie Wayne, played by Adrienne Barbeau) who takes it into work with her. The plank shorts out her radio equipment and the words “6 must die” appear on it before the wood bursts into flames.
Suddenly, in a sleepy town known for very little, a trawler and its fishermen go missing and a corpse is found; bottles begin to rattle in the town grocery store, as if after-shocks from an earthquake; and clock alarms go off.
When townie Nick picks up (in more ways than one) north-bound hitchhiker Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), the windows of his pickup shatter. Elizabeth later suggests that she brings bad luck with her, even if Nick “doesn’t’ believe in luck, good or bad…”
As Albert King sang in Born under a Bad Sign…”if it wasn’t for bad luck, I would have no luck at all…”
With politicos and other luminaries gathering to celebrate 100 years of Antonio Bay, the fog is rolling in, and with it killer pirates, sabers and hooks as watchful lighthouse DJ Stevie has to sound the clarion call.
The Fog is breathtaking. The shoreline shot of the lighthouse descent is Hitchcockian in its beauty. Scenes are impeccably staged (as star Janet Leigh pointed out, both Carpenter and Hitch shared a careful planning ethos).
However, there’s something as difficult to pin down as the fog itself, something viewer-resistant. The jump-scares seem out of place. Despite Carpenter’s keen eye, the setting isn’t as inherently scary as it would be in the darker psycho-geography of Stephen King’s New England. Also, the pacing is uneven and it’s easy to be distracted and the denouement seems Italian-lite. It’s a couture model without a personality, whose beauty is best admired from afar.
*** (out of 5)
[CHECK OUT OUR PODCAST OF THE FOG AND ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 with Scott Drebit of Daily Dead]