Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, March 22, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1980)

6. The Fog

“The Fog” has maybe one of the best openings in horror movie history. A pocket watch dangles in center of the screen, ticking away, swinging back and forth, as if the filmmaker is trying to hypnotize the audience. The watch suddenly snaps close. We are revealed to be sitting around a campfire, as Shakespearean character actor John Houseman informs that it is nearly midnight but there is still time for one more story. The tale is told, setting up the film and it’s persistent spooky mood. If “Halloween” was a dissertation on the Midwestern urban legend, “The Fog” is a take on the tradition of the ghost story.

As the opening continues, we see Carpenter’s full evolution as a stylishist. The camera roams around the town, showing small creepy things happening. Shelves shaking, car alarms going off, chairs moving on their on. The only thing breaking up this show build-up of poltergeist activity is the sultry, sexy voice of Stevie Williams, played by Adrienne Barbeau at her absolute peak hotness. All of this seems to guarantee that with “The Fog,” you are in for a spooky ride.

Something I observed on this viewing is that Carpenter isn’t interested in building atmosphere. I’ve gone on before about how horror, for me, is built on shadows and fog. Despite being right there in the title, this isn’t a movie devoted to billowing clouds and creeping shadows. Sure, there’s lots of it, fog I mean. We get several extended shots of the green, glowing, billowing mist creeping over the beach and town. However, Carpenter isn’t going for soft, subtle creeps. Instead, the director is focused on tension and terror.

There are several sequences built on generating serious scares. An early scene of the ghosts attacking a trio of fishermen sets up the prototype of the film’s scares: Sharp, sudden blades emerging from the fog, quickly striking down their victims. The movie uses jump scares extremely well. An absolute classic involves a dead body unexpectedly tumbling out of a locker. The same dead body later rises from a slab, reaching a hand out for a victim. (Not unexpectedly, Jaime Lee Curtis is the attacked girl in both scenarios.) The movie’s top moment of shrieking scares involves a ghost appearing in a door way, fog billowing into the room. In a moment that has to be a homage to Dario Argento and “Suspiria,” searing red color floods the frame as a meat hook is driven into a neck. Moments like these are kindred spirits to Michael Myers leaping out of closets or back seats in “Halloween.”

While the film is primarily the director’s spin on ghost stories, several moments remind me of the sort of urban legends that inspired “Halloween.” My favorite involves a ghost tapping on Tom Atkins’ door. He takes his time approaching, unaware of the danger. The tapping goes on, the camera showing a meat hook slowly moving back and forth. As midnight ends, the clock breaks, and the ghosts vanishes, taking the danger with them. These moments share attributes with any moment of Michael Myers standing around, lurking.

The film peaks early at the end of the second act, when the moments of building tension and pure scares combine. On paper, the idea of a car fleeing from an encroaching cloud of fog sounds ridiculous. However, a combination of well done practical effects, a spooky score, and balanced direction and pacing make it a stand-out moment. The intensity continues in the movie’s scariest moment, featuring a hiding, clearly terrified child, glass doors, and a particularly nervous nanny. A possible cheat, involving a sudden rescue, the fog taking a break, and that horror movie cliché of a car not starting (Or, in this case, a tire getting stuck in a mud puddle), is defused by red-eyed silhouettes slowly approaching out of the fog. The film never reaches this three-layer dip of awesome scariness again.

Somewhat disappointingly, in the last act the movie becomes a siege film, Carpenter falling back into “Assault on Precinct 13” territory. Though there are strong moments, like the ghost arms pushing through stained-glass windows, but the movie can’t quite mine tension out of the confined spaces and impending assaults. Even the climax, which involves Adrienne Barbeau fighting off the lepers on the roof of a light house, can’t quite muster the tension and scares it is desperately reaching out for.

I can’t help but feel this drop-out in scares has to do with two decisions made in the script writing. The first involves splitting the story into two threads. The main one involves the majority of our characters walling up in the church together. The second involves Barbeau all alone in her light house, fending for herself against the invaders. The lighthouse is doubtlessly the more interesting concept and is the one that gets the less attention. It splits the tension and prevents the audience from ever being fully involved in either situation.

Why is the light house the more involving scenario? “The Fog” is an ensemble film. There’s no clear protagonist. While “Assault on Precinct 13” kept the audience interested in its large(ish) cast by keeping focusing on their interactions, “The Fog” has everyone off in their own story lines. Most of the characters are left underdeveloped. Janet Leigh and Nancy Loomis get the worse of it, confining all of their major character development to one car ride and a tearful monologue from Leigh. This seems like a major waste of the vetern actress. Atkins gets a fairly juicy monologue but his character is mostly an undefined, slightly rogue-ish leading man. Carpenter seemed to be blatantly subverting Jaime Lee’s reputation as the virginal horror final girl by casting her as a hitchhiker who sleeps with a guy after knowing him for a few hours. None of the performers give a bad performance but their parts are underwritten.

Except for Adrienne Barbeau as Stevie Wayne. Barbeau is rarely used well in films, mostly being consigned to eye candy. I guess it’s not a coincidence that her husband-at-the-times would give her a strong leading role. Stevie has several modes as a character. She’s a mother, first off, and while she only has a few scenes with her son, they ring with warmness. As a DJ, she puts on a sultry bedroom voice, seducing the listeners as much as she does the audience. Like Laurie Strode however, Stevie is a survivor. When the situation goes to hell, she never gives up, fighting through with pure scrappy determination. She’s tough and refuses to die. It’s easy to tell she’s in over her head and scared shitless but Stevie certainly doesn’t need a man to save her. Aside from an overly long scene of her walking to the radio station, repetitive ocean sounds and radio feedback filling the air, every scene focused on her is good stuff.

Another stand-out performance belongs to Hal Holbrook. The spitting image of Edgar Allan Poe, with his sunken eye sockets, shocked hair, and sad drunk demeanor, Holbrook plays the part of a conflicted holy man to the fullest. He brings a lot of fine ambiguity to the part. He obviously harbors a great deal of guilt about what his ancestors have done. However, when time comes to give up the gold, he seems unwilling. Charles Cypher gives another fine performance, really cutting loose as the horny weather man attempting to woo Barbeau. Considering Cypher usually plays the dull voice of authority, it’s nice to see him ham it up a little bit.

“The Fog” is built on a foundation of rich horror history. Carpenter’s typically atmospheric electronic score owes quite a bit to both Goblin and “Tubular Bells,” especially its chiming main theme. There’s blatant call outs to H.P. Lovecraft, American International Pictures, and Alfred Hitchcock, not to mention in-jokes about Carpenter’s collaborators. While Rob Bottin’s work here doesn’t point towards the mind-blowing talent he would display later in “The Thing,” only showing off gooey maggot-infested make-up once, the lepers are iconic monsters. Black outlines with burning red eyes, shambling out of the white fog, make for an incredibly creepy, indelible image.

“The Fog” seems to solidify its horror classic status with that sting-in-the-scorpion-tail, shock ending. It’s a flawed film for me and certainly not as strong a statement as “Halloween.” However, I almost feel like it’s a richer film then “Halloween.” “The Fog” is cozy, in a way, and it’s easy to see why it’s horror comfort food for fans world over. [Grade: B+]

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