• ‘The Fog’. (Distributor)Source: Distributor
He may be best known for ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Thing’, but ‘The Fog’ is Carpenter’s purest exercise in the horror genre.
Travis Johnson

21 Oct 2021 - 1:24 PM  UPDATED 3 Aug 2022 - 8:47 AM

“11:55, almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before 12:00, just to keep us warm.”

John Carpenter’s 1980 film The Fog is a ghost story that begins with a ghost story. On the eve of the centenary of the tiny fishing hamlet of Antonio Bay, old Mr Machen (John Houseman) tells a group of children gathered around a beach bonfire the tale of the wreck of the Elizabeth Dane a hundred years ago, a befogged ship that mistook a fire on the beach for the local lighthouse and foundered on the rocks with all hands lost. He also tells the enraptured kids that legend says the drowned crew will one day return, along with the fog that doomed them.

And that is exactly what happens.

Released in 1980, The Fog is horror legend John Carpenter’s fourth theatrical feature and his first since the epochal Halloween in 1978. If that film broke new ground, codifying the slasher subgenre and setting the template for every implacable big screen mass murderer going forward, The Fog is a decidedly – and delightfully – old-school horror movie, revelling in the tropes and traditions of the good, old-fashioned campfire tale. It’s not about subverting expectations, but meeting them, and the joys of the film do not involve the shock of surprise but the creeping anticipation of knowing what’s going to happen to the various characters caught up in the dark doings on screen.

And it’s quite an ensemble, with many of Carpenter’s stock repertory company showing up – some for the first time. Adrienne Barbeau (Someone’s Watching Me!, Escape From New York), then Carpenter’s wife, is the local radio DJ, who acts as a kind of in-universe narrator as the fog rolls in and the bodies start dropping. Tom Atkins (Escape From New York, Halloween III) is a local guy who picks up a hitchhiking artist shortly before things turn spooky. That hitchhiker? Jamie Lee Curtis of Halloween fame, and fellow Halloweeners Nancy Loomis and Charles Cyphers also turn up, as does Curtis’s mother, Janet Leigh (Psycho). Even gravelly voiced character actor George “Buck” Flower shows up for the first of his many appearances in Carpenter’s filmography.

To add to the metatextuality, characters are named after Carpenter collaborators Nick Castle (Michael Myers in Halloween, and co-writer of Escape From New York), Tommy Lee Wallace (editor and more on many of Carpenter’s early work, and director of Halloween III) and Dan O’Bannon (co-star and writer of Dark Star, who went on to write Alien), while Carpenter himself has a cameo opposite the great Hal Holbrook’s alcoholic priest.

But that’s just icing on the creepy cake. The story of The Fog unfolds as steadily and relentlessly as the creeping mist of the title. As the film progresses, we learn that the Elizabeth Dane was a ship full of lepers, and its Captain, Blake (special effects legend Rob Bottin, who would later work on The Thing) wanted to establish a colony for his fellow sufferers near Antonio Bay. The town fathers betrayed him, lighting a false beacon to lure his ship to its doom and plundering the wreck. Blake’s gold was used to build the fledgling town, and now Blake and his fellow victims have returned from their watery grave to wreak vengeance on the descendants of those who murdered them.

And what vengeance it is! The Fog is actually completely bloodless, but that doesn’t prevent it from being delightfully, skin-crawlingly creepy. As the titular fog oozes across the waters and through the streets of Antonio Bay, ghost-lights flickering in its depths, the lurching revenants of Blake and his crew loom out of it, cruelly curved boat-hooks at the ready, to pay back sin with sin. We never get a really good look at Blake and company, but that’s for the best; their shambling bulks wreathed in mist, heavy with a sense of watery decay, are enough for our imaginations to do the rest.

Indeed, The Fog is all about imagination. It’s all about storytelling. Carpenter, a rather minimalist, formally restrained filmmaker even when employing the grand guignol excesses of The Thing, knows when to let pure story do the work, and The Fog is a story about stories; old Mr Machen gets us started with his campfire tale, Barbeau’s late-night DJ provides the storytelling connective tissue to keep things ticking along and at a crucial point Holbrook’s boozy padre discovers an old diary that clues us in to what really happened to the Elizabeth Dane – how Gothic is that? The film never disguises its fictional nature, instead inviting us to rug up next to the fire, pour a nightcap and lose ourselves in a good story well told. What could be better on a foggy Halloween night?



Watch 'The Fog'

Thursday 4 August, 12:10pm on SBS World Movies / Streaming now at SBS On Demand

USA, 1980
Genre: Horror
Language: English
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ty Mitchell, Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh

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