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Campfire stories
A region 1 DVD review of John Carpenter's The Fog by Slarek

My first viewing of John Carpenter's The Fog, his fourth theatrical feature as director, was at a special preview at London's National Film Theatre. This was an exciting moment for me – I'd just completed my film school dissertation on Carpenter's earlier work (which included his criminally unseen TV movie Highrise / Someone's Watching Me) and was finally, for the first time in a year, able to sit back and watch one of his films without a notebook in my hands. But the real thrill was a simple one – it was a new film from the man who had made Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween. As the lights went down I could not have been more excited.

Listening to the audience as we filed out of the screening was interesting. The single most common remark was this: "It's a shame it didn't stick to the book." Now for those coming to the film from a 2005 perspective, this needs some explanation. Although Carpenter's film wasn't based on a novel, its title and timing were, for a UK audience, a little unfortunate. The preceding six years had seen the almost meteoric rise in popularity of horror author James Herbert, whose first novel, The Rats, was published in 1974 and was a major best-seller, at least in the UK. He followed up on its success the following year with an equally popular horror story, which also took place in recognisably English locations. It's title? The Fog. Ah, now you see the problem. By 1980, when Carpenter's film had its preview screening and subsequent release, James Herbert's name was far more widely recognised in the UK than that of this young director, and his work had reached a much larger audience here. Many of those attending that screening may well have known who Carpenter was, but in those pre-internet days and without the advantage of press and review information, all they had was a title and, if they'd done their research, a hint of a plot and a few publicity stills (I still have them, and the original poster, as it happens). A good part of this audience had come to see what this young American director had done with this hugely popular English horror novel, and as far as many of them were concerned he had simply nicked the title and gone his own sweet way with the stpry and characters, in the process betraying Herbert's original vision. Which, of course, was completely wrong. Carpenter's film was made independently and quite probably without any knowledge of Herbert's book. But before I come across as all superior to these mistaken folk, I should mention that I too had gone in expecting such an adaptation...

It's in situations like this that second viewings prove so valuable, and it was then that I was better able to appreciate the considerable qualities of Carpenter's rural ghost story, as well as the compromises made to ambition that supplied the first hints of the problems that were to dog some of his later films. But I've seen The Fog something like twenty times since then and I still have the original poster on my wall, so something about it clearly works for me.

It starts on a quote from Edgar Allen Poe and a scope-framed close-up of a dangling pocket watch, which pans to include a watching child lit by the flicker of firelight. It's then that we get the movie's first jolt as a hand appears and loudly snaps the watch shut. And you know what? This ONLY works in the cinema. Maybe it's a scale thing, as at the preview screening everybody in the audience jumped, but on video or DVD it's just not that startling, no cinematic 'boo' of the sort that peppered Halloween. It matters not. This is the film's prologue, delivered by an old sea captain played by veteran producer/actor and one-time Orson Welles collaborator John Houseman, who sits by a camp fire and tells a group of assembled local kids one last tale before the clock strikes midnight. In hushed tones he relates the story of The Elizabeth Dane, a sunken ship whose ghostly crew will one day rise from the sea, shrouded by the fog that led to their shipwreck exactly one hundred years ago. Up drifts the camera and we're into the title sequence.

For Carpenter this was a break with his own main title tradition. Where in previous films the opening credits were short, effecient and were concluded before the film itself got under way, here they run for several minutes over brief vignettes that suggest unnatural things are afoot in the seaside town of Antonio Bay. Shortly after the film's release. I remember a letter to a film magazine complaining that they seemed to go on forever and that the writer had been tempted to leap to his feet and scream "Enough, already!" I know where he's coming from, but that's still a bit much. Lengthy though the sequence is, it's beautifully shot and edited, but does give us our first taste of a seemingly improvised internal logic that shifts as the story progresses. Car alarms go off, a petrol pump flies out of its housing and starts pouring fuel onto the ground, a TV switches itself on, a chair scurries across a bedroom... We are approaching the 100 year anniversary of the founding of the town and the Elizabeth Dane crew are set to return, and this is clearly pointing the way to the bad supernatural things that are soon to occur. But what is actually happening here? A pre-haunting spiritual shockwave? The only link between these incidents is that objects do things by themselves, and that itself is clearly designed to be seen as creepy. It doesn't really tie up with later events because it's probably not meant to, its only purpose being to make us realise something is up, a shortcut route to spookville via previous tales of the unnatural. Why does a chair move across Sandy's bedroom? Because a chest of drawers did so in The Exorcist, and furniture that shuttles along under its own steam is now a sure sign that something evil is at work.

This does tend to highlight Carpenter's slightly schizophrenic approach to certain elements in his tale of ghostly terror. Asked on the film's release about the intimidating solidity of his ghosts, he memorably remarked that he had to find a way to make them scary because "we all know they don't exist." But although he largely trades on the physical threat they represent, he cannot resist throwing in a few of the more traditional examples of cinematic supernaturalism. Thus a coin transforms into a portion of the Elizabeth Dane's nameplate, then leaks seawater over a tape recorder, then displays a warning, then bursts into flames. Bottles shake on supermarket shelves, van windows explode for no reason other than to freak out its occupants and make us all jump, and a ghostly scouting party turn up the night before the anniversary at the home of the vehicle's driver and knock ominously on his door, all ready to duff him over, only to run out of time when the clock strikes 1.00am and its face shatters.

The significance of the title becomes apparent when it is clearly shown that the Elizabeth Dane ghosts can only move around within the confines of the fog, and if you stay out of it then you should theoretically be fine. But if we return to the logic of the opening credit sequence then they could theoretically strike at you from a distance by throwing a chair at you or blasting you with glass, a sort of spiritual slaughter by remote control. Does it matter? Not that much. It is, after all, a ghost story, and Carpenter himself has stated that if you're dealing with with the surpernatural then there are no real rules. Perhaps he's right, but non-existent threats are the backbone of horror, and even the wildest of tales have to function within their own internal logic, and The Fog does sometimes wander outside of the boundaries it sets up. It saves its biggest cheat for the end, when a little bit of fog sneaks back into a church, unseen by those standing outside, in order to polish off a dangling narrative stand and provide a bloody good final shudder, sneaking the ghosts under the door when they previously had to either knock and wait or tear away the wood to gain entry to an abode.

Carpenter was clearly attempting for an expansion of scale on Halloween's almost one-on-one conflict, in the setting, the characters and the nature of the threat. It's an ambitious move, as it involves geographically distancing his characters from each other, which risks diluting the menace through the need to repeatedly shift between them when the going gets scary. To a certain extent this is exactly what happens, resulting in potentially hair-tearing scenes in which the audience is let off the hook by the perveived need to cut away as tension peaks to check how the other characters are doing. This may work as a leave-you-wondering wind-up, but does mean that the film never generates the level of unrelenting terror found in the final twenty minutes of Halloween because we never feel trapped in one place with no obvious escape route.

But in other areas, the film marked very positive new ground for the director. The amusing exchanges between the girls in Halloween is taken several stages further here with what for my money remains the writer-director's wittiest script, one that bristles with character detail and sassy dialogue, an absolute gift to a cast of largely Carpenter regulars who spark off each other beautifully. This dialogue/delivery combo proves an essential element in engaging us with such a wide selection of characters in a short space of time. Even those in smaller parts get their chance to shine – the early scene aboard The Sea Grass with three half-drunk fisherman, for example, is a delightfully written and performed slice of character creation and plot development. All who know the film will remember the "Hey, there's a fog bank out there" moment, but even if I quoted all of this sequence's dialogue here, it wouldn't come close to reproducing how funnily it plays. But this is comedy with purpose – by rendering these characters so instantly likeable, their deaths at the hands of the invading ghosts a short while later adds emotional weight to the narrative advancement. Thus, we become involved with the characters and their predicament from an early stage, and if their locational disparity de-intensifies the threat, we remain sympathetic to their plight throughout for the very simple reason that we like them.

While the actors and script bring the characters to life, it's the skill and inventiveness of the filmmakers that lifts The Fog way above the potential constrictions of its budget. Dean Cundey's gorgeous scope cinematography and some excellent location work (the lighthouse that you have to walk down to is a particularly memorable) give the film a visual quality that most studio films would die for. The sound effects and mix are up there with the work of David Lynch and Alan Splet, and Carpenter's camera placement and Tommy Lee Wallace and Charles Bornstein's editing milk tension even from more generically familiar sequences (the car that only becomes stuck in the mud when the occupants are being approached by monsters, for example). Sealing the deal is Carpenter's typically memorable score, the atmospheric synthesiser tinklings and sinister hums later giving way to thunderous electronic crashes and shrieks that recall sound effects from Robert Wise's The Haunting and the iconic strings that accompanied the assault on Janet Leigh (also in the cast here, of course) in Psycho.

The Fog has stood the test of time well and still stands as a creepy, stylish and wonderfully witty horror story. Carpenter talks on the commentary of expectations for a film that was even more frightening than Halloween, and on the score the film certainly falls short, despite some nicely done scares and a couple of very well executed wind-ups. But on all other fronts this is Carpenter on fine form, and I'm willing to bet serious money that it craps all over the upcoming and unwelcome remake.

sound and vision

The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer here does justice to Dean Cundey's compositions, exhibiting as it does first rate contrast, colour and an impressive level of detail throughout. The blacks are absolutely rock solid, as they should be given Debra Hill's comment on the commentary about Cundey's skill at getting the black levels dead right. There are some visible compression artefacts on blue skies in the daytime scenes and what looks occasionally like a teeny bit of edge enhancement, but otherwise this is a nice job.

The 5.1 soundtrack is crystal clear but sits almost exclusively at the front, though with some subtle but effective separation. A little bit of LFE work during the bass tones of the music is welcome. The original mono track has also been included, plus a French mono dub.

It should be noted that this is a dual-sided disk, and on side 2 is a cropped 4:3 version of the film which is a complete mess – the print quality is OK, but not only are Dean Cundey's compositions completely buggered up, but the editing rhythm has been altered in order to cover characters located on alternate sides of the scope frame. Horrible.

extra features

A John Carpenter Commentary is always good news, and here he is joined by producer and one-time partner Debra Hill, and the two provide an entertaining and informative trip through the making of the film, laced with some enjoyable anecdotal stories, my favourite being Carpenter's tales of seasickness woe which resulted in "the script supervisor and I blowing our lunch all over the place."

There are two Documentaries on the making of the film.

Tales From the Mist – Inside 'The Fog' (27:55) is a retrospective look back at the production, created for this DVD release and made up primarily from interviews with cast and crew members, including Carpenter, Hill, Tommy Lee Wallace, Dean Cundey, Adrienne Barbeau and Janet Leigh. Carpenter and Hill repeat the story they tell in the commentary of the genesis of the film, which occurred in a trip to Stonehenge, located in the same country that gave birth to the book a few of us once thought the film was based on (spooky, huh? I thought not). Carpenter is surprisingly damning of the first cut of the film, which was fixed by re-shoots and a serious re-edit. A breezily paced and enjoyable inclusion.

Fear on Film – Inside 'The Fog' (7:41) is an original 1980 featurette and includes interviews with Carpenter, Hill and cast members, which makes an interesting comparison with how they look over 20 years on in the more recent documentary, which included snippets from this one.

The Outtakes (4:08) are not anamorphic but are in their correct aspect ratio and in surprisingly good shape. This has the look of a gag reel created for the cast and crew (I've seen enough of these to recognise the signs) and has some fun stuff in there, though there are no real howlers.

Storyboard to Film Comparison (1:25) covers the scene in which the Sea Grass crew first encounter the ghosts.
Advertising gallery includes the Theatrical Trailer (2:50), 2 Teaser Trailers (0:52 and 0:51), 3 TV Spots (0:31, 0:31 and 0:30) and slideshows of Original Posters and Film Memorabilia (only 3 inclusions here). The trailer and TV spots are 4:3 and assaulted with dust damage and scratches, and the teaser trailers appear to be from VHS recordings, but all are valuable inclusions.
Finally the Photo Gallery has 46 behind-the-scenes and 17 publicity stills, all reproduced at a decent size.

But hang on, there's also an Easter Egg here. On the Special Features menu, use the remote control to move up above the commentary on/off selector and a pair of glowing red eyes will appear. Select this and you get a Montage (2:39) of tops and tails from shots in the film showing the crew creating fog effects, plus a sprinkling of process shots in production, all set to the closing theme.


The Fog's appearance on DVD gave those of us who enjoyed it in the cinema and then spent years groaning at its treatment on TV a chance to really re-appreciate what a good-looking and smart little film it is. More recently, this same package was released on region 2 with the extra features spread onto a second disk, and you can find it seriously discounted on-line. Carpenter fans will already have it, but with the take-the-money-and-run remake about to hit cinemas, this should be considered an essential purchase for all discerning horror fans.

The Fog

USA 1980
90 mins
John Carpenter
Adrienne Barbeau
Jamie Lee Curtis
Janet Leigh
John Houseman
Tom Atkins
Hal Holbrook
Charles Cyphers
Nancy Loomis
Darwin Joston

DVD details
region 1
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby Surround 5.1
Dolby mono 1.0
French (mono)
Director and producer commentary
Original featurette
Retrospective documentary
Advertising gallery
Storyboard to film comparison

review posted
31 October 2005

In-jokes and references
Character names
Tom Atkins plays Nick Castle, a friend of Carpenter's who played The Shape in Halloween and went on to become a director in his own right.
Charles Cyphers plays Dan O'Bannon, Carpenter's friend from student days and his collaborator on Dark Star.
George 'Buck' Flower plays Tommy Wallce, the film's production designer and co-editor and a longtime friend of Carpenter.
Darwin Joston plays Dr. Phibes, a Vincent Price character that should be well known to every true horror fan.
Regina Wilson plays Mrs. Kobritz, named after Richard Kobritz, the producer of Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me and Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot.
Stevie Wayne, another of Carpenter's 'Hawksian women', at one point plays a song by The Coup de Villes, a group cosisting of Carpenter, Nick Castle and Tommy Wallace. Their backing singers, The Coupettes, were Jamie Leigh Curtis, Nancy Loomis and Debra Hill.
The role of church handyman Bennet is played by Carpenter himself.
The jetty scenes were shot in Bodega Bay, the setting for Hitchcock's The Birds, just yards from the café in which the townspeople took refuge during the first major bird attack.
On the Sea Grass, one of the characters steps into the Panavision frame in huge close-up in a deliberate reference to a technique used by Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West, something Carpenter once said he would never have the nerve to do.

related reviews
Assault on Precinct 13
The Thing

See all of Slarek's reviews