Classic Movies: The Fog (1980)

Directed by – John Carpenter
Written by – John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Starring – Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, John Houseman, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis & James Canning

Between Eyes of Laura Mars (which he wrote), Halloween (which he wrote, produced *and* directed) and The Thing (which he directed), John Carpenter was one of the most dominant forces in horror/thriller cinema for a glorious five-year period. His influence on the genre is as resonant now as it was three decades ago and he is quite rightly hailed as one of the genre’s great masters, despite the fact that – with a few notable exceptions – a large number of his films weren’t initially all that well received. However, thanks to the wonders of video and DVD, much of Carpenter’s back catalogue has since been reassessed and a number of his films have been given the moniker “cult classic”.

One of those films is The Fog, a bizarre ghost story / slasher film combo that was released in between Carpenter’s two most successful ventures to date; Halloween and Escape from New York. On its release The Fog was met with a critical reception that was somewhat muted, with numerous critics feeling disappointed in the wake of the universally-acclaimed Halloween. The fact that The Fog is an ensemble film in which three of the six main cast members – Lee Curtis, Loomis and Cyphers – had already starred in the aforementioned film makes the negative comparisons with Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece even harder to avoid.

Adrienne Barbeau - The Fog

For me, however, The Fog has little in common with Halloween outside of its genre and – as such – all comparisons between the two are pretty much void. Where Halloween is a simple (albeit brilliantly so) slasher film, The Fog is a much more political film that attacks the values of small town America while dabbling in supernaturalism. It begins with a campfire ghost story, told by a weird old man (played by John Houseman; The Paper Chase, Rollerball), and then maintains that “urban legend” mentality all the way through. The small coastal town in which the film is set – Antonio Bay – could be any town in America, and the film plays on the idea that even the smallest, most insignificant places have their own stories to tell. The tropes that Carpenter utilises – the ghost ship, the stolen treasure, the revenge that occurs on a significant date etc. – are all classic elements of an urban legend and the film uses these to critique small town American society. Like all of the greatest ghost stories, The Fog is much deeper than it might initially seem.

Nevertheless, the beauty of The Fog lies in the relative simplicity of its story. Set over a two-night period the film follows the centennial celebrations of Antonio Bay, a town that was founded with the riches of a sunken clipper ship. As midnight strikes on anniversary day, the town is rocked by strange phenomena – such as televisions turning on, phones ringing and walls falling down – and a strange, glowing fog begins to take hold. The film then follows radio host Stevie (Adrienne Barbeau; The Cannonball Run, Creepshow), local resident Nick (Tom Atkins; The Ninth Configuration, Creepshow), hitchhiker Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis; Halloween, A Fish Called Wanda) and the woman in charge of the centennial celebrations, Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh; Psycho, Halloween H20) in their quest to solve the mystery of the evil lurking in the fog.

The Fog - 1980

Though elements of the film are problematic, I do think that The Fog is a decent little horror film that deserves its status as a classic of the genre. At just 90 minutes it is perfectly-paced; the first act sets the tone and the mystery, the middle act establishes the fantastic villains and the final act takes the audience on a thrill-ride that refuses to slow down until the very end. The slow nature of the initial set-up helps to establish a sense of dread and when the shit hits the fan as the evil seeks its revenge, the film turns into a wonderful action-horror combo. The combination of a fantastic musical score, confident performances and stunning cinematography makes The Fog one of the best horror films that the eighties has to offer.

For me, John Carpenter’s little film about pirate-ghosts attacking a small American town is a true horror classic. It might not be perfect but it’s a damn sight better than a lot of the retrograde trash that it went on to inspire, and it’s one of those films that is so wonderfully entertaining you can easily watch it over and over again. Sure, it might not be as pitch-perfect as Halloween or as intensely terrifying as The Thing but if you’re looking for some simple, enjoyable horror to pass an hour or two then you really can’t go far wrong with The Fog.

★★★½

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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