Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Tom Atkins, Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh, Nancy Loomis
Runtime: 89 minutes
We move from nature’s revenge to ghostly revenge with another entry from my favorite horror director, John Carpenter. Although this is another low-budget deal that Carpenter and co-writer/producer Debra Hill (who also worked with him on Halloween) were apparently dissatisfied with, to the point where they re-shot a third of the film, and gave the blessing for the horrendous remake, I think that this is an eerie, tight piece of horror cinema.
The small coastal town of Antonio Bay, California is about to celebrate its 100 year anniversary, when a mysterious fog appears. It causes unexplained occurrences, and three men in a fishing boat are killed; their bodies are found but their deaths seem inexplicable—as if they were underwater, yet the ship where they were found was bone-dry. We shift our focus on several characters: single mother Stevie Wayne (Barbeau), who owns and DJs the local radio station; Father Malone, an alcoholic priest (Holbrook) who unravels the mystery; Nick Castle (Atkins), a friend of the killed fishermen, who picks up a hitchhiker (Curtis); Kathy Williams (Leigh), a woman organizing the centennial, and her snarky assistant, Sandy (Loomis); and several other characters. This is quite a motley crew with a number of talented actors who worked with Carpenter or would work with him on future films, and are significant names in horror (Janet Leigh, of course, having played the role of Marion in Psycho, appearing alongside her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, who played Laurie in Halloween). In-jokes with names and references abound as well, a treat for horror dorks that I won’t bore you with here (you can find them easily on Wikipedia if curious).
The fog itself, as an avenging force of nature, is quite an eerie effect, glowing and moving deliberately to find its victims. Now, here’s the spoiler for those who haven’t seen it, although it is suggested early on: the fog is animated by the ghosts of a ship that had crashed off the shore of Antonio Bay, an event that led to its founding. I won’t go into it more than that, but the explanation implicates the entire town, showing that it was founded on murder.
Carpenter wrote the music for this, and he again shows a talent for writing ominous and memorable scores. There’s plenty of use of shadows and light, seeing things before characters do, and the kinds of things that build effective atmosphere and suspense. It mostly works as a creepy little gothic story, bolstered by some terrific actors and actresses. The only element that hurts it is the reliance on gore and the grotesque appearance of the “ghosts” (or whatever they are, since they appear to be very corporeal). The film works best when it relies on suggestion and the mysterious fog (and I love the tagline for the poster: “What you can’t see won’t hurt you…It’ll kill you!”). Apparently, Carpenter felt that to compete with gorier films coming out at the time, they had to add that stuff in. (Not sure what films he was specifically thinking of, but it sounds like a bit of a cop-out to me.) The ending also feels a bit cheap, forcing in one last thrill—although I think it can also be read as the inevitability of supernatural revenge—the forces of evil that won’t be vanquished by the attempts of the “good.”