John Carpenter films just have a special kind of feeling to them, imbued with a great ability to scare or thrill an audience while possessing a fun energy that makes them easily watchable even when he is off his game. His ability, when working in the horror genre, to make an audience feel surrounded by the danger presented in the films, is remarkable. Whether it is in the scores he composed himself, in the creepy yet campy stories his films tell, or in his incredible use of mise-en-scène (especially staging, cinematography, and location), his films have a transportational quality that scoops audiences up into his world. In The Fog, that place is Antonio Bay, California. It is a town built on a sort of nostalgic inspiration with a quaint downtown, an old lighthouse, and a celebration for the town’s 100th anniversary arriving the next day. With it comes a sense of campy menace. In the prologue, the film introduces its story with a campfire tale told by an old man to a group of wide-eyed boys. As legend tells it, a ship called the “Elizabeth Dane” crashed on the shores of Antonio Bay the day the town was founded 100 years ago because of a blinding fog. When the next fog appears, the crew of the Elizabeth Dane is alleged to return and exact their revenge on the town.
Carpenter’s score, as is so often the case, sets the atmosphere perfectly for the film. No matter the moment, his frantic, panicky, and unsettling score never ceases to capture the mood. From the feeling that the music is practically crawling under your skin to moments where it creates and builds up the film’s ominous atmosphere, The Fog’s score is so essential to the effectiveness of its scares. The film’s sound effects also prove quite jarring, with regular conversations often punctuated by the sudden breaking of glass, making both the characters and the viewers jump. Carpenter doesn’t overuse this element however, timing each usage of these startling effects to unsettle the audience and build up to the film’s climax.
These sound effects are made all the more impactful by the film’s strong special effects and overall visuals. For the former, the sound of three knocks on a door from a hooked hand as fog billows around outside is a truly creepy noise, but the added imagery of some silhouetted figure ominously standing there with blood red eyes elevates it to another level of terror. Carpenter’s use of the fog effects throughout often exemplifies what makes the best horror films so effective, with the fog serving as a visual representation of the feeling that every character is surrounded by danger. In this case, it is very literal as the fog brings with it the ghostly souls of the sailors lost at sea 100 years ago. Thus, as the fog rolls onto shore or as homes are engulfed by the fog, Carpenter creates a situation where you just want to jump up and scream at the television in panic. You desperately want to warn the characters that there is something creeping up behind them or that they should not open the door, panickedly fidgeting in your seat, biting whatever fingernails you have left by that point. All the while, Carpenter plays with the mise-en-scène, trapping the characters- both literally and figuratively with the film heavily employing classic shadowy noir bars to symbolically trap characters in a home- all with his nervy score crescendos and glass shatters all around.
The same level of fun applies to the plot and characters, with Carpenter nimbly introducing the full cast in the first act before dropping them in their positions for the return of the fog As things go haywire and eventually reach a feverish pitch, The Fog can become quite campy- and really, how could a film in which ghost sailors hidden by glowing fog sneak up and kill people with their hook hands not be campy?- but it always feels like the right balance of fun and creepy. It feels like a film that one could have found on television in their youth and then have nightmares about for years. The film’s characters may not be incredibly well-realized, but that is hardly an issue as the cast is able to make due with what little is there, capturing the very human core of these characters. This is especially true of Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), a Hawksian woman and owner of the KAB radio station. Her sexually suggestive lines as she tries to entice in male viewers to listen to her late night radio show (the male listeners’ responses as they drive around are also quite funny) and her take-no-prisoners attitude as the chaos unfolds makes her such a fun character to watch. Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) is similarly gripping, as he is the one who learns the truth behind the town’s history must face-off with the sailors to come to some kind of agreement. The film’s climax is as bonkers as one could hope thanks to Father Malone with some great religious imagery and guilt playing out as he is forced to reckon with the sins of his ancestor.
I just love The Fog. I love most films by John Carpenter, but The Fog has to be my favorite. It can be a bit goofy at times, but the way in which Carpenter builds up this idyllic and quaint town, then strips back that nostalgia to show the demons buried beneath under a lens of absolute horror is just so much fun to watch. He brilliantly pieces together the score and visuals with a brisk pace and healthy balance of camp and horror, delivering a film that is an incredibly fun ride from beginning to end.