John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’: One of the Best Ghost Stories and Its Clever Warning to Us All

Photo: Kim Gottlieb-Walker © Embassy Pictures, EDI, Debra Hill Productions

Even though John Carpenter’s The Fog came into our consciousness with the label of a lesser work from the old master, which is a misconception that probably persuaded many horror film lovers to postpone their encounter with it and rather choose a more popular title for their movie nights, from the film’s very beginning, marked by the atmospheric tale by the campfire and that phenomenal title sequence, we were charmed to bits. This traditional ghost story shaped as a folktale for a restless night somewhat differs from its older brother that shook the world a couple of years before, and that’s in all likelihood the main reason why The Fog was met with such lukewarm reviews upon its release. With the groundbreaking proto-slasher Halloween Carpenter stepped under the spotlight and forced a smile out of even the most cynical film critics, but it must have been clear to him that those critics were waiting for his first little misstep to thrust their sharpened knives into his spleen. What Carpenter offered with The Fog was something different, something original and something unexpected from the god of the slasher subgenre, and both the critics and the audience got a bite from a meal they didn’t order. This initial instinctive disappointment might have limited The Fog to only a “pretty solid” box office success and frequent judgment from the leading film aficionados, but in the following years (that turned into decades) Carpenter’s movie got the praise and respect it strove for. Today it’s considered one of the pearls of an unbelievable sequence of Carpenter’s films at the meeting point of the seventies and eighties. One of the best ghost stories we’ve seen on the screen is in fact one more proof of how little Carpenter really needs to shine with his creativity and storytelling passion. A master of suspense who probably wouldn’t be looked down on even by Hitchcock, the filmmaker Carpenter likes to pay his respects to.

The weight on the director’s back was enormous: Halloween opened up doors for him, but also threatened to confine him to the title of a slasher director. He must have known and felt that his next project would be scrutinized, and even though his landmark Michael Myers story earned a fortune, his budget for The Fog was still seriously limited. Together with his frequent screenwriting and producing partner Debra Hill (and a fresh ex-girlfriend at the time), he made the film for around $900,000, but upon seeing the rough cut he immediately felt something was wrong, that the film didn’t work, that as he followed his vision something went wrong along the way. Sensing the film’s competition would eat it up and convinced it was too confusing and timid for contemporary audiences who wanted more gore, he decided to shoot more material, which made the expenses rise up to 1,1 million. One of the scenes he chose to add was the prologue campfire scene we mentioned earlier, a sequence that gives an important impulse to the creation of the general mood and helps shape The Fog into a terrifying cautioning tale in the vein of those we all listened to as children. Carpenter’s film, shot by the great cinematographer Dean Cundey (Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Big Trouble in Little China) in an anamorphic 2.35:1 format, is a visually disarming movie with a solid cast led by Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook and Jamie Lee Curtis, and it’s a unique joy to see special effects legend Rob Bottin (The Thing, RoboCop) in a small but memorable role.

There was great deal of pretension in film during the ’60s and ’70: filmmaking is art. The idea was that you are delivering a message of great importance. This goes back to Antonioni and Fellini, the influence of the European film. Now we’re going back to the American cinema, filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Hitchcock, and John Ford—entertainment movie-makers. I’m happy, because this is the best kind of film there is.” —John Carpenter, Cinefantastique 1980, Volume 10, Number 1

 
The tipping of the hat to Hitchcock stated earlier is visible in the mentioning of Bodega Bay, the small town from The Birds, as well as in the very casting of Janet Leigh, the symbol of Psycho and Jamie Lee Curtis’ mother. Considering the fact one of the crucial characters from Halloween is named after a character in Psycho (Donald Pleasence’s Sam Loomis), it’s not difficult to figure out at least one of Carpenter’s role models. If we wanted to indulge in further speculative analyses, we might see the fact that Carpenter hired the daughter of a Psycho legend both in Halloween and The Fog a clear argument that these movies wouldn’t exist without Psycho, just as Carpenter himself wouldn’t be the filmmaker he is without Hitchcock.

Filmed for thirty days according to Carpenter and Hill’s script, with the master’s own music, solid cast and a nightmarish mood the old fox manages to create with unbelievable ease and feeling, The Fog is a very important part of a great filmmaker’s career, just as it’s a very important part of the history of an otherwise cinematically rather rich decade. The special bonus of this film depends on your willingness to explore its topic in a much broader context: what we find as the central theme of The Fog is theft, treachery and murder. The parallel with the colonization of the continent is obvious enough, which doesn’t sound all that stretched if you consider Carpenter didn’t hesitate to lash out against American politics on other occasions as well. What’s especially interesting is why the ghosts rise from the bottom of the sea and exact revenge on a couple of characters that weren’t even direct descendants of the families that did them wrong: a nice and effective warning that the blame lies not only on those who do evil things, but that those who silently profit from turning their heads away should seek atonement as well. Look for the fog.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read John Carpenter & Debra Hill’s screenplay for The Fog [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Shout! Factory and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 

THE DIRECTOR WHO CAME IN FROM THE FOG

John Carpenter: The director who came in from the fog, Cinefantastique Vol. 10, No. 1, 1980. John Carpenter interview of The Fog. You can download the PDF version, courtesy of Matthew Hurwitz’s Cinemachine.

 

“I’M NOT THE GODFATHER OF GORE”

The noted genre director reviews past disappointments and future projects while maintaining “I’m not the godfather of gore.” Starlog Magazine issue 100.

Retrospective documentary on the making of the 1980 horror film The Fog.

 
The great folks at Craft Truck interviewed legendary DP Dean Cundey for their Through the Lens series: “This is a cinematographer who has left an indelible mark on the history of filmmaking. Not just a man who has traversed pretty much every genre—horror, action, drama, comedy, western, etc.—but also always shown a commitment to storytelling first. Dean Cundey just knows a tonne about how to make images work. A trailblazer, a visionary, and a gentleman.”

 
In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain, a genre film director; and in the USA, a bum. These are the famous words of John Carpenter, one of the most influential horror film directors of all time, whose works such as Halloween, The Thing, The Fog and In the Mouth of Madness remain an inescapable part of every horror film encyclopedia. A talented filmmaker, a modest, humble and practical man, and, for this occasion equally important, a disarmingly, refreshingly honest interviewee. It was from France, to go back to the quote we started with, that the idea for this rare documentary came to life. In 2006 filmmaker Julien Dunand made a documentary film simply called Big John, a 75-minute exploration of Carpenter’s career, character and American film industry in general. The film lacks clips from Carpenter’s movies, most likely due to budgetary issues, but more than makes up for it with a series of enlightening interviews with both Carpenter himself (mostly filmed behind the wheel while driving around L.A.) and a whole gallery of his frequent collaborators, such as producing partner Debra Hill, the Assault on Precinct 13 star Austin Stoker, actress and ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau, the Christine protagonist Keith Gordon, Carpenter’s composing collaborator Alan Howarth, who also did the music for the documentary, and many others. The central value of this film, which is obviously made with a lot of love and respect both for Carpenter and the craft, lies in the one-on-one conversations between Dunand and Carpenter, which give insight into the life and work of a filmmaker whose golden days may be long gone, but whose significance for the art of film can’t be diminished. As on many other occasions, Carpenter leaves the impression of a sympathetic, straightforward fellow who feels he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. “Many of my film school colleagues were more talented than me,” he told us a couple of years back, “so you mustn’t underestimate the importance of sheer luck.” That may be the case, but through a career spanning four decades and eighteen movies, obvious talent and hard work was what kept him at the top.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Carpenter’s The Fog. Production still photographer: Kim Gottlieb-Walker © Embassy Pictures, EDI, Debra Hill Productions. Purchase On Set with John Carpenter: The Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker (Titan Books) here.

 
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