Wednesday, 7 October 2015

October Nightmares #7: The Fog (1980)


It is through an illusory haze that I recall watching The Fog for the first time. I was nine and had just sat down with my mother and sister for our weekly family film night when The Fog came on the screen. Having received my first dose of horror in a secretive midnight liaison with the TV one summer evening some months before - In the Mouth of Madness, incidentally also by John Carpenter  - I was excited by the prospect of being allowed to watch such a movie. Carpenter's works usually possess a feverish enthusiasm for the night - it's the moody colour palate, electric ambience, the notion of antediluvian forces operating in the dark - which carries special appeal for the adolescent to whom this domain is denied. It also happened to be a late November evening and the air was starting to dampen, with a ghostly chill descending.  

John Carpenter has the dubious distinction of moulding my childhood in a way few others have. And though that may sound as though I'm claiming he molested me, I mean it in the sense he is responsible for most of my favourite films from my childhood. The Thing, Escape From New York, Dark Star, Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, and so on. I've always considered him to be first and foremost an 'ideas man'. He takes established ideas apart and rebuilds them from his unique perspective. Halloween, though inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, is credited with popularising the slasher genre in its modern form. I wouldn't go so far as to say John Carpenter is an impeccable filmmaker, but many of his movies primarily live and die on the idea driving them.

Part of The Fog's appeal is the simplicity of the central premise. A hundred years prior to film's beginning, the founders of the town of Antonio Bay made the rash decision to sink a ship containing lepers hoping to establish a nearby colony. They also plunder the ship's coffers to build the town and its church. Yikes, the town is barely days old, and already the community is more corrupt than the sodding Borgias. Understandably the lepers are a little bit miffed about this decision to murder them, even going as far to take revenge from beyond the grave. As I once said to the man trying to impregnate a watermelon: "that's some fucking dedication right there." Back in the present (1980) on the centenary of the town's founding/massacre of innocent lives, a strange fog drifts in from the sea. But this is no ordinary cloud of water droplets and ice crystals - this is a fog of war (and zombie pirates).

In horror, fog stylistically suggests ill-omen; it isolates us from the familiar and suggests the encroachment of the unknown. Jean Epstein's 1928 adaptation of the Poe short story 'The Fall of the House of Usher', for instance, employs fog in a way which symbolises the insanity befalling the Usher mansion, creating an eerie tone that pervades throughout. The fog in, er, The Fog has a peculiar alien quality to it, an illuminated cloud of terror manifesting from nothing to blot out the landscape. It stalks and creeps its victims in a manner befitting a living predatory being. The fantastic cinematography helps to animate the evil qualities of the fog. By using techniques such as Chiaroscuro, Dean Cundey enhances the ghostly qualities of the undead hiding amongst it to a dreamlike degree. Could there exist a more perfect image for encapsulating the spirit of the campfire ghost story movie than apparitions shambling out of the mist? Other than John Houseman's creepy old ass sat around a log fire telling spooky tales in the film's opening sequence, of course. That man could make a Toy Story character sound like the voice of doom.

The Fog is undoubtedly Carpenter's most subtle creation. As is the case in literary Gothic fiction, the setting is key to the overall experience. Antonio Bay feels utterly devoid of life during the night. From sombre shots of the empty streets to Adrienne Barbeau's lonely vigil in the lighthouse radio station as late-night DJ Stevie Wayne, The Fog simply feels empty and mournful. Stevie is an interesting character actually, she (or rather her radio show) becomes a beacon for the cast of disseminated characters adrift in a metaphorical ocean of confusion and uncertainty. This serves to highlight the gnawing isolation at work throughout The Fog; characters form sparse connections as they face off against the increasing malevolence taking over and vandalising their small town. One particularly enjoyable moment is the introduction of Nick (played by the always entertaining Tom Atkins) and hitch-hiker Elizabeth (a strangely subdued performance by Jamie Lee Curtis). It's the quickest initial meeting to sex having ratio since Xbox Live made it easier for your mum to meet young boys.

One thing that's stood out to me about The Fog is that it's not really about the dead lepers at all. In fact, they don't appear on screen all that much, and even then they exist as mostly suggestive shapes or out of shot bodies. No, The Fog is about a weird small town weighed down by a history of bloody-thirsty oppression. A type of place about which authors such as Dean Koontz or Lovecraft would write. The agonies caused by repressed guilt run deep, and it is easy to imagine Antonio Bay's isolation being self-imposed as a reaction to its original sin. Carpenter perfectly accompanies the slow-burning dread and sombre tone with a pulsating cacophonic soundtrack that'd be equally at home in a funeral procession. But when the dead men finally do appear in the film's climax in the church, we learn nothing new of who these men were beyond their infamy as condemned lepers. They remain literally and figuratively faceless. It's pretty much like being on Tinder.