“So I never hitchhiked before, and I just wanna be careful. Can I ask you something?”
“Are you weird?”
“Yes. Yes, I am weird.”
“You’re weird? Thank god! The last ride I had was normal it was disgusting..”
There is something irreducible about The Fog – a simple story strongly and imaginative told, it inhabits a self-defined world oblivious to criticism. It is a slower, gentler and more visually expansive film than we would have expected from John Carpenter in 1980, and one of very few modern(ish) American horror films to zero right in on the kind of ‘comforting eeriness’ that forms such integral part of the appeal of the kind of older, ‘weird tales’ horror that the fim quietly references throughout. A beautiful communal viewing experience, “The Fog” plays as a mass media-era equivalent of the campfire ghost story so memorably narrated by John Houseman in the film’s opening.
A digression: can only speak for myself here, but I’ve always hated that Stephen King-birthed style approach to American horror stories that started to become prevalent through the ‘70s and ‘80s, wherein our story is seen to take place in a normal, healthy suburban community which is threatened by some malign outside influence. I mean, like I could give a crap whether Suzy and Bobby can get to school safely, or whether sinister occult forces are out to undermine the sanctity of marriage, or any of this other OH NO, THREAT TO THE STATUS QUO bullshit! I’m here to hang out with the weirdos! No, what I like are horror stories in which the world itself is weird - in which time and space seem frozen in some strange interzone in which the conflict or threat seems to grow, or return, from the surroundings that nature or humanity has built for it, rolling in as naturally as, well.. the fog.
I’m not sure whether I’m explaining myself very well, but this is something that is returned to time and time again in the films that appear further up this list, and it is a feeling that Carpenter captures perfectly through the town of Antonio Bay in “The Fog”.
Imagine if you will, a perpetually off-season Northern California coastal town, full of dark, empty streets, cheaply-built beach-houses stretching out into the bay. Businesses failing from a basic lack of people to patronise them, but continuing nonetheless, running on empty cos the rents are so low. Nautical knick-knacks, weather stations on the cliffs. Everyone is friendly, but kinda suspicious with it. Adrienne Barbeau is a single mother who runs a radio station that broadcasts out of a lighthouse, playing anonymous, jazzy muzak through the dark hours of the night. As the only DJ, she chooses to run the station through the night, and shuts it down during the day, for some reason. Janet Leigh is the mayor. Sailors and harbour officials look out to sea and talk boat-talk. Nobody ever really seems to do any work, and everyone is very vague about the concept of, y’know, leaving.
If you’re thinking “I wanna live there” then join the club. Come on over and and we’ll watch “The Fog” together. Rarely have I seen a more perfectly inviting mini-universe built up in a film, a place I’d be more inclined to walk straight through the screen and become part of. Dark secrets and vengeful ghost pirates notwithstanding, I wanna take a ride out to Spivey Point right now.
So many of the elements compiled in “The Fog” help to define a certain, strange strain of horror that I love, but that I don’t really have a name for. The isolation, the coastal setting. The disembodied radio broadcasts, severed communications, fragmented narration. The weird, highly localised folklore. Figures emerging from/returning to the sea. The lighthouse. These things move me wherever they turn up, but, oddly, we’ll be seeing every single one of them again in another film higher up the list – a film made before “The Fog” that I think is even better. I don’t believe the similarities are anything more than completely coincidental, but in some ways they are truly uncanny, as if the two were tapping directly into the same nexus of imagery and atmosphere…
Anyway, I could happily list the many, many qualities of “The Fog” all day long, but I’m sure that would be surplus to requirements. Should you ever find your faith in john Carpenter slipping, just consider that he made this – a film about vengeful ghost pirates so great that the vengeful ghost pirates are the least good thing in it.
For further elucidation, I direct your attention to this great piece written by Erich Kuersten of Acidemic earlier this year. I concur with all points made, and for some reason had never previously clocked the uncanny parallels to “The Birds”.