The Fog (1980)

Today is the 138th anniversary of the founding of Antonio Bay, CA.  I see no better time to tell you about one of my favorite movies, which comes from that fictional town.

As the town is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the stroke of midnight brings chaos. It all starts with an old sailor (John Houseman, in a scene shot after the initial filming was done to add more of an overall scary feel) freaking some kids out with the tale of the Elizabeth Dane. At the same time, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook, adding some star power) drunkenly finds his grandfather’s diary from a century ago, when the founders of the town deliberately sank and plundered a ship full of lepers in order to build the town and the church.

Things get even crazier when a fog rolls in, bringing back the ghost of the Elizabeth Dane and its crew members, who kill the entire ship full of men. And then there’s Nick Castle (Tom Atkins!), who finds a young hitchhiker named Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis!). And oh yeah, DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau!) is given a piece of the Elizabeth Dane by her son. The entire town flips out overnight, with windows breaking, car alarms going off and dogs barking at the sea.

It doesn’t get any better the next day. The driftwood that Stevie was given mysteriously changes words from DANE to 6 MUST DIE and leaks all over her equipment, making a tape player read part of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  Nick and Elizabeth seek out his missing fishermen friend and find the body of Nick Baxter with his eyes torn out. It gets worse. The corpse gets off a table and tries to attack her before carving out the number 3. And Kathy Williams (Jamie Lee’s mom Janet Leigh!) chooses to ignore the priest’s warnings that everyone is doomed while worrying about her husband being lost at sea.

Local weatherman Dan (Charles Cyphers from Halloween) has been flirting with Stevie the whole time, but he gets attacked by the fog in a scene that feels like it was lit by Mario Bava. And the fog rolls toward her and her home, where Nick saves her son at the last minute. Finally, the crew of the Elizabeth Dane comes into the town’s church, seeking the gold cross made from their stolen riches. Blake (special effects master Rob Bottin), their leader, grabs it as the crew disappears.

At the end, the priest wonders why they didn’t take him when they promised to kill six. He doesn’t wonder long as the fog rolls back in and he’s beheaded.

This was the first movie Carpenter would direct after Halloween and was inspired by The Trollenberg Terror, a movie where monsters hid in the cloud. It also had a real life moment that spurred it forward — when promoting Assault on Precinct 13 with his then girlfriend, producer Debra Hill, Carpenter noticed a strange fog move quickly past Stonehenge.

This was part one of Carpenter’s two-picture deal with AVCO-Embassy (Escape from New York would be the next movie) and was a low budget film with a $1 million dollar budget. That said, Carpenter and Dean Cundey shot it in the anamorphic 2.35:1 format, so it looks amazing. The scenery b-roll that plays as the fog grows closer looks otherworldly and anywhere but California. It’s gorgeous. 

After viewing the rough cut, Carpenter felt that the film was terrible and didn’t work. He added the campfire scene at the beginning and several new scenes while reshooting others to be more horror and gore-filled. The budget only went up $100,000, but nearly one-third of the film was reshot.

The Fog is packed with references to other films. Charles Cyphers character is named for screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who made Dark Star with Carpenter. Tom Atkins’ character, Nick Castle, is named for the actor who played Michael Myers in Halloween (he’d later co-write Escape from New York and direct The Last Starfighter), the babysitter’s name is taken from Richard Kobritz, the producer of Carpenter’s TV movie Someone’s Watching Me! And George “Buck” Flower plays Tommy Wallace, named for Carpenter’s art director and the future director of Halloween 3: Season of the Witch and the original It TV movie.

There’s more! John Houseman’s character is named after horror writer Arthur Machen, an Arkham Reef is mentioned as a shoutout to Lovecraft and the town’s coroner is Dr. Phibes. Bodega Bay, the setting of The Birds, is also mentioned.

There’s some great acting in here, particularly the speech Atkins gives about his father almost dying on the ocean. And Barbeau is great as she channels famous New York City DJ Alison Steele, The Nightbird. And Carpenter is in the film as the assistant Bennett who is named after a friend from USC, Bennett Tramer. If that name sounds familiar, Carpenter also used it for Laurie Strode’s potential love interest (and victim of mistaken identity in Halloween 2) Ben Tramer in Halloween. Even Stevie’s car is a reference to another film Carpenter loves: it’s a Volkswagen Thing (her last line, “Look for the fog,” echoes the last line in that movies “Watch the skies”).

At one point, John Carpenter mentioned creating an anthology series for TV that would have The Fog create supernatural events in other cities before connective ties to the original film would be shown. Sadly, this series never happened and in 2005, a remake was produced. The less said about that, the better.

Looking for a copy? You mean you don’t already own this? You can grab the limited edition steelbook from Shout! Factory or watch it on Shudder. It’s better than any horror movie that’ll come out this year. Maybe even any year.

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