The BFI’s 2022 blockbuster genre extravaganza, entitled ‘In Dreams Are Monsters’, is running now across the UK until December 31st. I’ve been contributing to a local programme in which I discuss fears associated with water and one of the films I’ve chosen to focus on is John Carpenter’s The Fog. This film met with a lukewarm response by critics at the time but scored healthy box office receipts courtesy of appreciative cinema audiences and then gradually developed a status as a cult horror film.
John Carpenter emerged as an innovative genre filmmaker in the 1970s, making films on low budgets and riffing off Hollywood classics. I have fond memories of catching his first feature, Dark Star (US 1974) in a double bill with Night of the Living Dead (US 1968) in 1978 and then a month later Assault on Precinct 13 (US 1978), his audacious take on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (US 1959). In those days American films, especially small independents, didn’t always get over here until a few years later and Carpenter’s big hit Halloween (US 1978) didn’t get here until 1979. It was such a big hit in the US that Carpenter sought opportunities for a more substantial budget and the chance to make a film that he could really spend time on. With his producer, co-writer and ex-girlfriend Debra Hill he was able to enter into a deal with Avco-Embassy to make two films with guaranteed distribution. He’d already made two TV movies since Halloween (one of which, his Elvis biopic with Kurt Russell, Elvis, was later released in UK cinemas).
The idea for a film that would use fog as the source of a monster came when Carpenter and Hill were in the UK and visited Stonehenge. Wikipedia also suggests that Carpenter remembered a British horror film, The Trollenberg Terror (UK 1958 and known in the US as The Crawling Eye). This gave him the basis of a monster hidden by mists or fog. In the British film the monsters are aliens but Carpenter turned to stories from the California coast related to traditional tales of ship-wrecking communities.
Carpenter and Hill created a suspense story with plenty of chills and although there are a few ‘slasher’ elements reminiscent of Halloween, this is in effect a traditional ‘vengeful ghost’ story. The production was budgeted at $1.1 million but Carpenter decided on a 2.35:1 ratio using Panavision and shooting landscapes of the North California coast around Point Reyes. The area has a very distinctive lighthouse which is central to the narrative as Stevie (Adrienne Barbeau who had just married Carpenter) runs the local radio station from the lighthouse and tries to keep the community aware of what is happening. There are other locations in roughly the same area, including Bodega Bay, which feature in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Interiors were shot in a small independent studio. Carpenter has commented that when he completed the film he and his team thought it wasn’t scary enough and they shot some extra scenes which appear in the final version.
The film now begins with John Houseman as a storyteller narrating a tale to a group of children. It’s a ghost story told at midnight as the 100th birthday of the small community is about to begin. This device actually introduces the plot development that is going to come and it is followed later by the local priest’s discovery of a diary telling what happened 100 years ago. Carpenter then turns away from exposition to offer us a sign of ghostly goings on through the behaviour of inanimate objects, electric signs flickering and in a garage a hose releasing itself from the pump and spilling petrol across the forecourt. Jamie Lee Curtis arrives in the town as a hitchhiker and decides to stick around after accepting a lift from Nick Castle (Tom Atkins). Her mother Janet Leigh plays a businesswoman in the small town of Antonio Bay who has organised a celebration of the centenary of the founding of the town. Hal Holbrook is the priest whose ancestor was involved 100 years earlier.
One of the most important features of the film for me is the landscape of the coastline. It’s a beautiful region with bays and inlets, sandy beaches and a road snaking around them. There is a great contrast between the daylight scenes and the night-time when the threat of the fog seems palpable. The church which becomes the location of the climax of the narrative looks unusual from the outside but inside feels like it is in the Gothic style of the late 19th century. I was reminded of Murnau’s Nosferatu in terms of how he used realist landscapes in contrast to the Gothic undertones of the buildings and the Dracula character Count Orlock. Carpenter’s storytelling involves a great deal of cross-cutting between the central characters so that we are aware of how each of them are getting through the day and eventually we realise that they will all come together for the climax of the narrative which covers just over 24 hours. The seemingly rapid pace of the film comes from this cross-cutting. It also builds suspense because we begin to feel frustrated following anyone of the characters, knowing something equally frightening might be about to happen to another character elsewhere in the town.
Carpenter is a great genre filmmaker operating not unlike a classical Hollywood genre unit with his use of a small team of collaborators in front of and behind the camera and in the edit suite. On this shoot, most of those involved had been on Halloween and would continue with him on the next production. He also co-writes his material and writes his own music scores. Avco-Embassy stuck to their deal and spent three times the film’s budget on distribution and promotion domestically and were rewarded with an eventual $21 million box office take.
The strength of the film’s appeal to audiences is evident in the coverage the film, and its various iterations on physical media, get on social media. For this current project I looked at the 2-disc Blu-ray restoration print from StudioCanal which carries lots of extras including commentaries and analysis. It still works as a ‘scary movie’ and appears to satisfy fans who have watched it several times. What more could you ask from a relatively low-budget genre picture? Here’s Avro-Embassy’s theatrical teaser trailer:
Keen to see a restored version of this; looked good at the time, but I suspect it looks better now. As you say, the landcape is as prominent as any of the characters…