Friday, October 19, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: THE FOG (1980)

Music/Direction by John Carpenter
Written by Debra Hill and John Carpenter
Cinematography by Dean Cundey
Edited by Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace
Produced by Debra Hill, Charles B. Bloch, Barry Bernardi, and Pegi Brotman

Starring
Hal Holbrook
Adrienne Barbeau
Jamie Lee Curtis
Tom Atkins
Janet Leigh
Nancy Loomis
John Houseman
Charles Cyphers
Darwin Joston


The Fog. Here's another John Carpenter movie that I didn't get the first time around. Once again, it was a victim of my own narrow tastes the first time I saw it.

 I've never really liked ghost stories. Ghosts aren't scary to me. Why? Ghosts, like all things supernatural, do not exist. But even if they do exist, what's the most that they could do? Move the furniture around? Muck up the walls and ceiling with some ecto-plasm? Put up a wailing racket? Ghosts, even if they did exist, are harmless, lame, laughable, and boring. Movies about ghosts, with some exceptions (like Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2, Kwaidan, Hausu, Poltergeist, the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Frighteners, and The Exorcist--and yeah I consider Pazuzu to just be a particularly aggressive ghost), are not interesting or scary to me. Why fear that which has never been real and never will be real? Hard to suspend disbelief over stuff like that.

You know what's scary to me? An asshole with an assault rifle and a massively distorted sense of entitlement. Ebola. Nuclear weapons. Cancer. A country that would let George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and all their crew have another four years. Torture. A country buffet on a Sunday afternoon. Prisons. My fellow human beings. You know, things from real life.

If you want to make an interesting ghost story, then you gotta have some kind of compelling reason for the dead to come back to life. Because once you're dead, that's it. You only get one shot, and then it's all over. No Konami code in this life, people. One shot, make it count. If you're gonna be breaking the rules, and rising from the dead and all that nonsense, you must have a fire of some kind inside your rotting mind. Some unfinished business. A grudge that won't quit. Can't be any petty bullshit. Gotta be for real if you're gonna be violating the laws of nature and all that.

And what about the living? How do they respond to the intrusion of the supernatural into material reality?

The Fog basically consists of decent, average human beings living in a California coastal town under assault by a ruthless supernatural force. But it takes its time. It sets up the environment of the coastal town, and offers a representative sampling of the population there under threat of destruction, and then slowly unleashes its ghostly terrors. For me, when I first saw it, it was way too slow.

At the time (I was a teenager) I was into Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Dawn of the Dead, Hong Kong action movies, The Evil Dead, Aliens, The Thing--I wanted anger, and blood, and heavy weapons firing nonstop. I wanted braindead macho motherfuckers getting 86ed and taking the whole world with them in a welter of blood and bullets. I wanted the red meat alien carnage of Aliens and John Carpenter's merciless masterpiece The Thing. I got off on the notion of shopping mall assholes turned into zombie bullet-catchers like in Dawn of the Dead. Measured against all this, The Fog was a Thornton Wilder play. Our Town with ghost pirates.

Watching it again, I find that I was just too uncivilized in my adolescence to appreciate the fine craftsmanship of The Fog. Now, I kind of get it.

Like I said, it takes its time. Carpenter uses the first half hour or so to put his widescreen framing to subtle, effective use by cutting from one location of a quiet, kind of lonely California coastal town to another, while weird things happen. Windows shatter. Electric and electronic devices go haywire. An old-timer played by John Houseman does a deadly serious recitation of a ghost story to a group of kids. A whiskey priest played by the one and only Hal Holbrook discovers a dark secret within the walls of his church. Adrienne Barbeau's radio DJ ties all these scenes together with her husky, welcoming voice. Other characters are introduced, and Carpenter takes his time to set up all the players in this drama.

When I was a teenager, I failed to appreciate this more measured approach to telling a story. No flashy, self-conscious displays of verbal wit. No gunfights in slow motion shown from numerous camera angles. No torsos bursting with extraterrestrial hunger. Just a mood of quiet doom slowly creeping through a small town in the dead of night.

When the horror finally does manifest itself, it's much like the Shape in Halloween. You don't see nearly as much as you think you do even when the killing starts. One important difference between the supernatural agents in The Fog from the Shape is that here we have a rational motive for their actions. The Shape is just a force of blind destruction sans emotions sans logic sans survival instinct. If you wanna get Lovecraftian about it, you could say that the Shape was a manifestation of Azathoth, the blind idiot god of total destruction, whereas the entities within the fog are agents of retribution taking up a cause out of the past. They are a manifestation of an irrational, supernatural force that actually has a rational motivation for its actions--a nifty paradox to find in a horror flick.

 Another interesting contrast: The Fog, like Assault on Precinct 13, takes up the the theme of vengeance. But there is a difference between The Fog and Precinct 13. The Fog is about vengeance for sins in the distant past, and Assault on Precinct 13 is about sins of the present. And, also, Assault on Precinct 13 is about human beings using non-supernatural methods--assault weapons, fanatic ideology, teamwork--whereas The Fog is about a supernatural entity with a somewhat limited ability to disrupt material reality to achieve its ends. The entities within the fog can disrupt electrical generators, cause windows to shatter, and can destroy telecom systems, and, when they get close in to their human targets, they can manifest humanoid forms armed with sickles, spikes, knives, swords, and very powerful strangler's hands. It's a hydra-headed force of destruction that is similar in its tactics and strategy to the enemies found in Assault on Precinct 13 and Ghosts of Mars. 

I really dig The Fog, now. I've grown up enough to appreciate it. It has a slow build to a terrific climax, and a strong cast: Hal Holbrook, Andrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Nancy Loomis, Janet Leigh, John Houseman, Charles Cyphers, and Darwin Joston. It emphasizes character, mood, and suspense over blood and gore. Watching it is more like reading a story by Poe or Lovecraft, or maybe something by Stephen King. It's good fun.

The Fog trailer:



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