Monday, June 11, 2018
Horror Watch: The Fog (1980)
Format: Amazon Streaming
Lately I've been having an ongoing conversation with Stuart about the tendency of critics to use the phrases "it's not really a horror film" or "but it's good" in discussing the horror genre when they want to get folks to at least consider viewing something made as a horror movie. This thinking and talk offends the horror purists, but as someone who tends to think of the endless line of cheapo slasher flicks that lined the walls of video stores during his formative years - I kinda get it. I understand the coded message: this is horror, but it's not going to just make you queasy and wonder why this is supposed to be a good way to spend 90 - 120 minutes of your life.
I'm of the firm belief that horror is a pretty good indicator that nobody goes to the movies for the same reasons (I usually get very little from horror, but I will have to be carried into a Katherine Heigl RomCom on one of those Silence of the Lambs dolleys). Still, this does make me think a bit about how I talk about horror films - what I like and don't.
During the course of the chat, Stuart was stunned to learn somehow I'd never seen The Fog (1980), and I had no real reason I hadn't seen it and one convincing Adrienne Barbeau to suggest I absolutely *should* see The Fog. It's not like I don't dig John Carpenter's other films I've watched - so I broke it up over a couple of nights as I was winding down in Bozeman.
I'm kind of mad at younger me that I never got around to watching this movie. As much as I liked it now, this would have been my sweet spot for horror back in middle or high school. A creepy story of ghostly revenge, uncovered curses and a drunk Hal Holbrook would have been just leaning on all my buttons.
One hundred years before the events of the film, a crew of lepers came to the California coast to set up a colony. Their ship ran aground, lured by a fire they believed to be a signal to draw them to shore, but instead it dashed them upon the rocks. Now, the town is celebrating it's Centennial (in 1980) and, because the-dead-with-a-taste-for-vengeance do not rest easy, things begin getting weird.
Barbeau plays a widow, mother and owner/ late-night DJ of a radio station that does double-duty as the lighthouse. She's been in town a while, but she's just a disembodied voice to most of the listeners. Jamie Lee Curtis is an artist hitching her way up the West Coast, from SoCal to Vancouver who lands in the wrong town at the wrong time. Janet Leigh (I know!) is a town politician trying to keep together the town's Centennial Celebration. And Hal Holbrook as somehow a third generation of maybe not the world's most by-the-book Priests (I am guessing they're not Catholic, but it all looked really Catholic...).
I don't want to get too much into specifics of plot, because it's not an overly complex film with a brief runtime of about 90 minutes. Instead, I want to tip my hat to the script, smart FX and performances.
Much like Halloween, Carpenter and writer/producer Debra Hill wrote a movie with a budget in mind - and while this movie is clearly far more expensive than near-student-film-budgeted Halloween, it wasn't until I finished the movie I thought about what was actually on screen. There's no shortage of practical FX, costume/ make-up and a minimum of what would have been complicated plate shots as "the fog" rolls in over the ocean. Supernatural happenings are also indicated via haywire electronics and machinery - all of which builds and builds tension.
A good portion of what happens in the movie occurring at night for added effect, but also to isolate the characters, making everyone more vulnerable. In addition to the script, which smartly keeps things tight and taught, Dean Cundey, cinematographer, plays with the shadows and light to amazing effect - giving a glow that permeates the fog while everything else falls into darkness. And there are some neat shots and interesting angle selection throughout the movie, including a mad, rooftop scramble at the film's third act.
Dude, shadowy seamen with hooks materializing out of the fog to seek revenge is some serious EC Horror stuff that I can support. This is some classic 12-and-up scary stuff that wisely suggests rather than shows. There's no real blood spilled nor full looks at our murderous crewmen - and that would break the scare. It's better just not to know, to not even imagine what's there - but to be spooked by the possibilities.
The narrow timeframe of the movie (about 24 hours) also allows for just the right amount of discovery without the appearance of characters making stupid decisions. They're figuring it out and making it up as they go along, all from different angles.
While I am sure Barbeau's shooting days were a bit lonesome and challenging as she has to carry so much by herself as the lonesome DJ in the top of the lighthouse, reacting to stuff that would be created in post - it's a great set-up, and for this being her first movie, she handles it with aplomb.
I guess if we want to break down horror into sub-genres, not something I know much about, this fits somewhere in the supernatural threat/ ghost story realm. Specifically sea-faring ghost stories. And I've been known to be forgiving of this corner of the horror genre if my viewing of Ghost Ship was any indication.
To the point of "it's not horror" - yes, this is textbook horror. It's really an ideal October movie, echoing a lot of what we think of as kids as spooky stuff. And it's a testament to John Carpenter's skill as Director, musical mastermind and story teller.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Debra Hill's hand in the movie as producer and writer - because this is a female-dominant cast, all well imagined, no one playing "the girlfriend".
All in all, I will 100% be watching this movie again.