The Cult Movie Club: John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ 40 Years On

What with ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘Bait’, you can’t move for nautically-themed movies at the moment. But it’s arguable whether either are as effective as John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, released 40 years ago today.

But then I’m biased: aside from Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ and ‘American Werewolf In London’, it was one of the first scary movies I was allowed to watch in my teenage years, and subsequently inspired a dodgy short horror novel of my own (‘The Ghost Of The Drowned Sailor’…).

Revisiting it this week for the first time in ages, it delivered all sorts of treats though these days is scarcely mentioned alongside ‘Halloween’, ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ and ‘The Thing’ in the list of bona fide Carpenter classics.

Shot mainly in coastal California around Point Reyes, Bodega Bay and Inverness, ‘The Fog’ was a brave move on Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill’s part, following up ‘Halloween’ by mostly eschewing the slasher format (it’s interesting to note that both ‘The Shining’ and ‘Friday The 13th’ were released two months later, in May 1980) in favour of a seemingly old-fashioned ghost story inspired by a trip to Stonehenge and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

This attempt at a different kind of movie caused problems when Carpenter’s original cut was deemed too moody and not supplying the requisite scares for post-‘Halloween’ sensibilities. Many scenes were re-shot and some new ones added just a few months before release, including the opening ghost story, ‘Close Encounters’-style scene-setting and top-of-the-lighthouse finale. The music and sound effects were also reworked.

Watching the 2002 DVD edition, the first thing I noticed is the gorgeous lighting and camerawork. Its sharp, crisp colours and composition are a great testament to the lab technicians (heralded by Carpenter on his DVD commentary) and director of photographer Dean Cundey, who has since gone on to be one of the premier DPs in Hollywood. Also the impressive miniature/model work, widescreen lenses and evocative coastal locations give a lot of bang for relatively little buck (‘The Fog’ was eventually brought in at just over $1 million).

‘The Fog’ also benefits from an excellent central performance from Adrienne Barbeau as the Hawksian, Bacall-voiced DJ Stevie Wayne (and spinner of Steely Dan-approved big-band and light jazz/fusion tunes). She and co-writer Debra Hill manage to root the hokum in a credible, sympathetic, rounded character. It’s also great fun to see Janet Leigh appearing in the same movie as her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, and Nancy Loomis delivers her usual amusingly insouciant line readings.

Effects man extraordinaire Rob Bottin features as head ghost Blake, heading up a very rock’n’roll-looking bunch of ghouls, though arguably the movie would have benefitted from a little less ‘show’ and a little more ‘tell’ in the last 20 minutes. Seeing Blake in plain sight at the end is always a bit of a disappointment, despite the glowing red eyes. But editors Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace deserve much credit for building tension in the last third with shrewd, snappy cutting (sometimes seamlessly between studio/location shots).

Carpenter’s excellent soundtrack cribs a little from Michel Legrand’s famous score for ‘The Go-Between’ but has some marvellous sections, particularly during Barbeau’s ‘look for the fog’ closing speech (obviously very influenced by a similar ending to Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing’).

‘The Fog’ was a hit (despite Siskel and Ebert’s stinking review, see below), earning around $20 million against its $1 million budget. It was a lot of fun to revisit it again, and looks like just the low-budget horror classic I always remembered it to be, with more imagination and storytelling elan than 99% of other genre offerings.

Happy birthday to a true cult classic. Now, who’s that rapping on my door? At this hour? And what’s that fog seeping under the door…?

Halloween Special: 11 Memorable VHS Covers

Back in those early days of VHS fever at the beginning of the ’80s, my parents would occasionally invite friends round to watch a scary movie. I remember tip-toeing out of my bedroom very late at night, creeping along the corridor and trying to snatch a peek at ‘Halloween II’ or ‘Straw Dogs’.

No, I wasn’t allowed to watch those kind of movies, though later was granted a bit of license with regards to ‘The Fog’, ‘Creepshow’, ‘The Island’ and ‘American Werewolf In London’ (for some reason).

But I could dream. The Video Masheen shop on Sheen Lane was a treasure trove of interesting VHS covers, a weird showroom advertising movies I’d never get to see. What kind of deranged mind could conceive of these images? The mind boggled. Some surely qualify as genuinely surreal pieces of art, though the #MeToo movement would probably put pay to a few more these days.

Of course I’ve seen many of these films now, though a few I still haven’t. And don’t really want to. But here are some VHS covers of the era that stuck in the mind. Straight from the shelf of Video Masheen. Happy Halloween…

11. ‘An American Werewolf In London’ (1981)

10. ‘Halloween II’ (1981)

9. ‘Creepshow’ (1982)

8. ‘The Island’ (1980)

7. ‘The Howling’ (1980)

6. ‘The Fog’ (1980)

5. ‘Southern Comfort’ (1981)

4. ‘The Exterminator’ (1980)

3. ‘Scanners’ (1980)

2. ‘Christine’ (1983)

1. ‘The Thing’ (1982)

11 Great 1980s Movie Taglines

Movie taglines: you know the drill (actually the tagline for a dental-themed slasher pic whose name escapes me…). One, two or three sentences that sum up a film’s flavour or sometimes entire plot. To cineastes of a certain generation, a tagline can be as memorable as the movie itself. Some even become part of the modern lexicon.

But what makes a good tag? Perhaps it’s common words uncommonly used. Horror and sci-fi films seem to lend themselves to memorable tags. Is it because of their promise of the perverse, the uncanny, the unexpected, the taboo?

Quotable taglines are scarce these days. Perhaps the proliferation of films as ‘lists’ on Netflix, YouTube and Lovefilm has snuffed them out. Walk into your local multiplex and you’ll see some extremely lame offerings. But the 1980s threw up a fair few humdingers, prompted by a need for eye-catching posters and proliferation of horror movies. Here are some of the best:

11. ‘The Shining’ (1980): The tide of terror that swept America is HERE.

A spine-tingler whose possible meaning is explored in excellent recent documentary ‘Room 237’.

10. ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ (1986): One man’s struggle to take it easy.

Does the job perfectly in just seven words.

9. ‘Scarecrows’ (1988): When it comes to terror, they’re in a field of their own.

8. ‘The Fog’ (1980): Bolt your doors. Lock your windows. There’s something in the fog!

Does what it says on the tin, but terrified me looking at the video cover in my local rental shop circa 1983.

7. ‘The Burning’ (1981): Don’t look, he’ll see you. Don’t breathe, he’ll hear you. Don’t move…you’re dead.

Only really comes into its own when heard in the original cinematic trailer.

6. ‘The Fly’ (1986): Be afraid. Be very afraid.

What does it have to do with the movie? Not a lot, but has entered the lexicon with ease.

5. ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ (1987) This time it’s personal.

See above.

4. ‘Poltergeist’ (1982): They’re here.

Simple. Chilling. Timeless.

3. ‘The Prey’ (1984) : It’s not human and it’s got an axe!

Silly, tasteless and great.

2. ‘Maniac Cop’ (1988): You have the right to remain silent…forever.

See above.

1. ‘The Thing’ (1982): Man is the warmest place to hide.

Brilliantly evokes the movie’s underlying theme: what makes us human?