The Test of Time: The Fog (1980)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Atkins

I have a real soft spot for John Carpenter. His films have never gotten the respect of a Hitchcock, Craven, or even Raimi, but Carpenter had a voice that needed to be heard. Sure, his stuff always walked the line between mainstream and B-film, but that’s what made his material so damn interesting. He’d write, direct, produce, and score his films, ensuring they were always Carpenter-ish. Granted, his beloved synthesizer sounds a little dated and his scores always sound on the simplistic side, but they really weren’t. His scores acted like a blood dripping heartbeat, keeping a steady beat and pace one drop at a time. For a about a decade, Carpenter was on one badass roll.

Under the examination: The Fog.

THE STORY: A fog rolls into a town and people get dead. Ok, so there’s more to story. Essentially, The Fog works like a ghost tale and even starts off that way with an old man telling a group of kids the legend that is the fog…a group of fishermen who were once wronged in death will seek revenge on the living within the small town of Antonio Bay. That sounds all in good fun until the legend comes true, the fog rolls in, and bad, bad things happen. Standing in the way of the fog is a loose hitchhiker (Curtis who sleeps with the first guy who picks her up), a fisherman (Atkins), a local DJ (Barbeau), a preacher (Hal Holbrook), and local politician (Janet Leigh, Curtis’ momma). Sounds pretty dumb on paper, but on screen it all somehow makes sense.

Those are some red eyes there.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: The Fog doesn’t waste much time getting a few scares, but it isn’t a movie that’s in a hurry. After setting up all the backstory we need with that campfire story, things get creepy fast, even if it isn’t up to today’s horrific standards. Instead, we get plenty of the ordinary odd like car alarms going off, gas pumps springing off and flowing, windows breaking, radios turning on. Just odd. It sets the mood immediately that this isn’t Halloween. This will be different. It only takes twenty minutes for the zombie-ghost fishermen to start killing, and they start with some live, local fishermen (sucks to be them) before moving inland. But even then, Carpenter pulls out all the cheap, old school haunted house tricks, going for the scare a minute approach.

Take the moment when Curtis and Atkins are on the missing boat after the local fishermen vanished. Looking around, Curtis accidentally turns on a radio. Boo. Then, as Atkins tells a dull story about his old man, a random locker slowly opens until boom...a collection of rolled maps drop to the ground right next to Curtis. Boo. Then, a corpse without eyes falls on her out of no where! Boo! It’s cheap, yeah, but who cares. An even better example comes during the morgue scene, where Curtis just sits in a room with a corpse, staring at a wall while the “men” talk. For whatever reason (never explained or attempted to explain) the fresh corpse rises up and slowly walks toward her with scalpel in hand. Of course, he drops back dead before he get to her, but it’s simple, quiet, cheap thrill and still damn effective.

The Fog also assembled a decent cast, uniting Jamie Lee Curtis (fresh off Halloween) and uniting Carpenter while a lot of his usual suspects like Tom Atkins, Charles Cypher, George Flower. Hal Holbrook and Janet Leigh are great in their roles, but I kinda wish Leigh and Curtis could have shared a little more screen time together. And, of course, who doesn’t dig Adrienne Barbeau.Rewatching this makes me wish Carpenter will go simple for his next film. Recast some of his old friends and go back to the style that made him...him.

Never let JLC drive. Bad things happen. 

WHAT BLOWS NOW: For the modern audience, I’m not sure The Fog holds up from a production standpoint. The film feels dated. The styles, the action, the gore all reeks of the early 80s. Now personally I dig a film that emulates a specific time, but I’m not sure if that works for a modern audience. The pacing is standard Carpenter stuff, but it’s slow compared to modern movies. Somehow, I doubt if you get a bunch of folks together who have never seen it that they’d be riveted by it. Some watch checks would probably be happen. Even more, the action isn’t overly effective and the gore is even worse. The ghost-zombies look cool and you gotta love their hooks, but nothing looks fluid, which makes sense considering Carpenter has said before that he went back after the shoot to gore it up. To give thing some punch. Could you imagine if he didn’t?

What hurts the film most is a lack of depth. Everything is surface level, from the story to the characters. Obviously, a ghost-revenge flick isn’t going to going to get all Godfather deep, but in terms of story, there really isn’t much there. Carpenter (along with co-writer and co-producer Debra Hill) attempted a somewhat complicated multi-character story, but it’s pretty lame. Our protagonist, if one had to be chosen, is the boobacious Barbeau, but her character doesn’t do dick except talk. No action. She’s a DJ after all, blabbing to folks on the radio warning them of the fog! Whoa. I guess Tom Atkins’s character Nick Castle (named after Carpenter friend and original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle) is the man of action, but even he really doesn’t do much. I suppose one could argue that it’s tough having characters fight ghosts, but Carpenter could have deepen the characters a little more. They’re as thick as a Wheat Thin. Or a Thin Mint. Or a Thin Lizzy (I kid).

THE VERDICT: For the current young, hipster generation who has grown up with Saw and Paranormal Activity as their world of horror, I have no idea how The Fog holds up. I’d love to know in the Talkbacks. For me, I know the Fog has flaws. I know the action kinda sticks and the gore isn’t very effective but I don’t care. It's a great, simple horror flick that does its own thing. That why I still love it.

This is prime Carpenter in-between his greatest hits.Most bands have a sophomore slump (and I know this isn’t his second film). This isn’t Halloween. This isn't The Thing or Escape from New York, but it isn’t supposed to be. It’s the evolution of a filmmaker with a voice. This is Carpenter in his prime when he was directing, writing, producing, scoring, and acting in his films (look for his cameo at the church -- no grey locks yet). I believe Carpenter intended to create an old fashion scare movie. Nothing more. In fact, the movie opens with a quote from Poe: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” That kinda says it all.



Well this pic really makes the movie feel old.




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