The Fog (1980)


So with the relative success of Assault On Precinct 13 under his belt, as well as the phenomenon that had become Halloween, John Carpenter set his sights on this little gem of a horror flick, which is simultaneously larger and smaller in scope than either film before it.

As the sleepy coastal town of Antonio Bay prepares for its centennial celebrations, strange things start a-happening. A convenience store seems to be beset by an earthquake specifically localised to the shop; a petrol station lights up in the middle of the night, as its pumps start pouring petrol onto the pavement and the mechanics of the garage take on a life of their own; a row of parked cars suddenly start blaring the horns with their lights on high beam, etc. etc. But most significantly of all, a strange glowing fog rolls in over the ocean…

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a handful of characters: Stevie Wayne (as close to a protagonist as we get) who broadcasts a late-night talk show from a plot-convenient lighthouse; Elizabeth, a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis, as the Name On The Poster) and Nick, and the man who picks her; Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh, in a bit of stunt casting) and Sandy as the driving force behind Antonio Bay’s centenary celebration and her assistant; and lastly Father Malone a local priest who seems to know a bit more than he lets on…

It’s also super-realistic.

The film opens at night, intercutting the scenes of the creepy goings-on with brief introductions of the characters, and you eventually realise that – while the mood it creates is suitably ominous and foreboding, and that there’s something strange in this neighbourhood – not much actually happens in the first 20 minutes of the film. We have a whole lot of setup, but no real payoff – it’s certainly not a chore to watch, but really, there’s no actual plot here.

Then we cut to three sailors on a boat, as they get wrapped up in the titular fog. They’ve been listening to Stevie Wayne’s broadcast where she’s informed them that a fog bank is moving against the wind and they initially dismiss it as a joke – until they’re suddenly shrouded. So a lot of ominous stuff has been happening, and its been creating an adequately creepy atmosphere though nothing amazing…and then the sailors go out on to the deck.

Now, I admit that I really like this film, and so I’m a bit forgiving of its obvious flaws (like taking up a quarter of the movie with introductory scenes) but the sight of the sailors standing on the deck of their little tub of a boat, shrouded in fog, as a giant clipper ship passes right by it – is truly creepy. Almost as creepy as when the sailors look around and some dishevelled figures standing in the fog, brandishing weapons – it’s pretty chilling. The mysterious fog-pirates soon kill the sailors, and we move on to the next day.

Also, these two jump into bed, literally before they know each other’s names.

During the next day, the Antonio Bayers deal with the previous night’s shenanigans, and we’re also introduced to Stevie’s son Tommy, who finds a piece of driftwood at the beach that used to be a gold coin. The wood shows up again later when it has a few spooky goings-on with Stevie at the lighthouse, but I particularly like that the film includes two lines from Tommy that make me laugh each time – the first is “Mom, look at this neat piece of wood I found!” which is just so overly earnest that you have to wonder how deprived he is as a child, and the second which has him explain, in the most matter-of-fact way that “it used to be a coin, and then it turned into wood” – now, fair enough, we saw that happen in the movie (there’s a coin on a rock, then a wave passes over it and in its place is the piece of wood) – but none of the characters in the film even bat an eyelid at this explanation.

It soon transpires (through a journal Father Malone finds in the opening) that the original founders of Antonio Bay did a pretty rude thing – and deliberately crashed a shipload of lepers who were planning on establishing a colony a mere mile or two away, and then took all their gold (because they were apparently very wealthy too). What we have on our hands is a good ol’ fashioned ghost-revenge story, only the ghosts are not so much ghosts as sentient-pirate-zombie-ghosts and they decide to travel inconspicuously in a giant cloud of conspicuous fog. When you break it down like that, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it doesn’t need to – the zombie-pirate-ghosts are an effective threat, and the film doesn’t need to be entirely logical to work – who cares that there’s no explanation as to why or how the zombie-ghost-pirates managed to affect the town so much on that first night?

As the second night rolls in and the foggy dealings continue for a second time, we’re essentially divided into two main camps of characters (after a few scenes of them all converging together): Stevie Wayne, trapped alone in the lighthouse, broadcasting what she can see the fog doing (and providing necessary exposition and plot points quite appropriately), and everybody else trapped in the church which is also besieged by zombie-ghost-pirates. There’s also a surprisingly effective scene where Stevie puts out a broadcast, apologising to her son for not being able to save him when she saw the fog envelop their house; for all she knows he’s dead, and it’s surprisingly moving.

After a few more kills – and I do mean few as there’s only a small handful of deaths in this movie – and some necessary tension-and-character-in-peril scenes, Father Malone gives the gold (which has been forged into an awesomely impractical gold cross) back to the head of the pirates, and they disappear. Everything goes back to normal, Stevie gives a final broadcast warning other sailors to watch for the fog, and Father Malone gets killed when the vengeful-leper-sentient-zombie-pirate-ghosts come back for one last pre-credits scare.

I’ve already said I like this film, and I do. I haven’t seen much of the remake, and it does look as bad as its reputation, but this is just a nice little horror film that’s not all that horrific. I mentioned that it seemed both bigger and smaller in scope than Halloween; The Fog is larger in terms of the number of characters, the villains, the setting and the general appeal of what is happening (a town besieged by a fog bank hiding evil pirates, as opposed to three girls being stalked by a serial killer), but in terms of what it’s trying to do, I think its much smaller.

The film wasn’t an amazing success on its release – most reviews sum it up with “yeah, it was ok” but it wasn’t quite the sensation that Halloween was, and I think that comes down to it not really trying to be all that scary. That may sound odd, especially in a horror film directed by John Carpenter, but it’s actually a really palatable horror film – it’s not very bloody (not that Halloween is, either) but it’s also not going for a really oppressive sense of dread and terror – which pretty much embodies Michael Myers in his first outing. Perhaps I’m being overly rose-tinted towards the film, and maybe John Carpenter just lost his touch here, but the film plays to me as though it’s not trying to be all that scary – it’s still pretty enjoyable. Put it this way – if I had kids, I’d probably let them watch it.

It’s got good performances, it’s nice and creepy without being malicious about it, it’s a decent story that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it’s just a fun little movie. Go check it out.

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4 thoughts on “The Fog (1980)

  1. Interesting review, I always thought that the opening when the fisherman is telling the story to the kids was very effective and created atmosphere.

    • It certainly does. I’ve used the “Are you sitting comfortably?” line a few times when launching into anecdotes, hoping that someone will get the reference, but so far it’s been to no avail.

  2. That was a nice read, Dave. The Fog was always a favourite movie of mine growing up so I’ve a soft spot for it. I’d probably describe it as a suspense movie more so than anything else. As a kid those “Sentient-pirate-zombie-ghosts” (haha, I liked that) were genuinely look-through-the-crack-in-your-fingers things. I’ll be reading more of your commentaries, they’re great!

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