The Fog (1980)

I saw John Carpenter’s The Fog for the first time a couple of years ago, an old, grainy decaying 35mm print with an oddly pinkish hue.  I confess I was disappointed, and I found it a little slow.

It’s now been restored, together with some of Carpenter’s other 1980s movies including Escape from New YorkThey Live and Prince of Darkness so I thought I’d give it another go when it showed at the London Film Festival.  I’m glad I did.

The story is straightforward.  Antonio Bay, a small coastal town in California, is terrorised by a strange, glowing fog that comes in from the sea.  The fog contains the ghosts of a group of vengeful seamen; they were drowned a hundred years ago when the town’s minister deliberately lured their ship to the rocks.  They mistook his fire for the lighthouse.

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The lighthouse that should have saved the sailors from their fate

Today, the town is preparing to celebrate it’s centenary, with the celebrations organised by town dignitary Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh).  The lighthouse now doubles up as a radio station: late night DJ Stevie Wayne (Carpenter’s wife Adrienne Barbeau) plays smooth jazz and shipping forecasts and lives with her son Andy in a house on the coast.  Town resident Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) picks up hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh’s real-life daughter); his friends have vanished from their boat that was mysteriously abandoned at sea.  And Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), the descendant of the murderous minister, finds his grandfather’s journal that reveals the truth about the ghostly sailors.

As the story unfolds, the mariners murder the townsfolk with their cutlasses and hooks, ominously knocking on doors as houses are enveloped in the white glowing fog.

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DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) desperately broadcasts a warning to her son to flee the fog

The new restoration is a revelation.  Much of the film’s effect and atmosphere comes from the lighting, the shadows in the glowing fog, and the vibrant use of colour.  Scanned in 4k from the original negatives, the picture is clear and has depth.  And now the colours really jump out at you.  It still looks like an eighties movie – there’s lots of grain on the film stock – but it was originally filmed on anamorphic 2.35:1 stock to make it look more impressive than its low budget might suggest.

As usual, Carpenter wrote the music and although perhaps less iconic than some his other scores there’s a recurring piano/synth motif that is unmistakably a John Carpenter soundtrack.

This time, I really enjoyed it.  I felt a lot more immersed, and the slow build-up didn’t frustrate me at all. The characters were engaging, the ghostly seamen suitably mysterious, and many of the scenes remain suspenseful.

A few bits of trivia:

  • Both Tom Atkins and Adrienne Barbeau went on to act in Carpenter’s Escape from New York, and Jamie Lee Curtis had starred in Halloween of course.
  • I noticed one of the characters was called Dan O’Bannon – presumably a nod to the real O’Bannon who co-wrote Carpenter’s wonderful debut Dark Star and went on to recycle the concept in the far less hilarious Alien
  • The town coroner is called Dr Phibes, a reference to the Vincent Price movies
  • Antonio Bay was filmed at Point Reyes, a coastal town a little south of Bodega Bay, the real-life setting of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Janet Leigh is the other Hitchcock connection; she was in the shower scene in Psycho.

The Fog is a lot of fun.  It’s a B-movie of its time, and although it’s minor Carpenter I’m glad I revisited it.  I’m now keen to see the other new restorations.

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The poster for the 4k reissue of The Fog, art by Matt Ferguson

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