It’s difficult to conceive of a modern horror genre without the work of John Carpenter, whose “Halloween” (1978) is generally credited – along with work like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) – as instrumental in popularizing slasher films, inspiring hordes of threadbare-budget knockoffs, and creating an appetite and expectation for endless sequels and, eventually, reboots.
Given Carpenter’s importance to the genre, it’s surprising to discover that his first serious horror follow-up to “Halloween” (after a brief interlude directing made-for-television films) was effectively a ghost story, positioned far from the maniac-slasher archetype that had begun to dominate. “The Fog” (1980), while a minor film in comparison some of his much more energetic and innovative work of the period, partially overcomes a middling and half-baked screenplay with stylistic flourish and efficient construction. Its charms come into particular relief when set against the ill-advised (and Carpenter-produced) remake of “The Fog” (2005).
Carpenter’s original version of “The Fog” situates in sleepy Antonio Bay, California, as it prepares to celebrate its founding anniversary. Inconveniently, the party is timed to overlap with a mysterious fog that rolls into town from midnight to 1 a.m. nightly, bringing with it silhouetted zombie-lepers intent on revenge for their deliberate drowning 100 years prior.
Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), Antonio Bay’s chattiest late-night jazz/funk lighthouse DJ, narrates the encroaching fog and is tasked with warning the town of its apparent danger. Elsewhere, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) and his hitchhiker/love interest Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis, generally wasted in the role) try to make sense of the murders and re-animation of the fog’s victims. Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), the town’s resident priest with an alcohol predilection, seems to exist only to interpret the fog’s historical context, and to provide shelter for the climactic showdown with the fog-people. (He’s also memorable for suddenly lurching out of the dark corners of his church when visitors call.)
There’s not much to this plot, but Carpenter and his writing partner and producer, Debra Hill, seem aware of this, and pacing is kept relatively brisk. There’s little of the sense of rhythm and staccato dread and violence from “Halloween,” however; also unlike “Halloween,” Carpenter and Hill seem unable to decide upon a concrete and compelling central protagonist.
Worse still, the anonymous fog-people, unhinged as they are, don’t constitute a truly unsettling or disturbing villain. The fog itself is more ominous than, say, a torrential rainstorm, but the reveal that its cargo is essentially silent masked guys with hooks is disappointing – particularly when it become apparent that not answering the door is the best defence. The lack of a single, urgent source of malevolence might befit the ghost-story theme, but it does no favours in struggling to establish a truly thrilling, dangerous tale – although one below-deck, almost unlit scene early in the film packs an anxious wallop.
Nonetheless, “The Fog” nearly transcends its narrative failures through Carpenter’s consistently inventive work as a visual stylist. Much of the film is awash in startling green, red and blue light, and a mixture of controlled shadows and purple glow in Father Malone’s church create a foreboding neon gloom. While the production seems to have kept California’s dry-ice rental business in the black in 1980, matte work of fog crawling up the beach proves more effective, with violent, blown-out hues of purple and blue framing the coast. Full use is also made of the production’s lighthouse location, with gorgeous deep-focus shots of the lighthouse cove. Paired with Carpenter’s typically jarring, slinky synth scoring (complete with frantic Moroder-meets-Herrmann stabs during “jump” scenes), there’s some truly memorable visual and aural artistry at work that transcends the minor screenplay and relatively scant budget.
Carpenter and Hill returned to produce “The Fog” (2005), which is less an attempt to improve upon the failings of the original than a grab for British Columbia tax credits. The basic plot elements are retained, although action moves to Aurora Island, Oregon (since Vancouver might not pass for coastal California), where Nick Castle (Tom Welling) has been upgraded to hero, and Stevie Wayne’s (Selma Blair) radio station has been reformatted to play Fall Out Boy instead of late-night big-band.
The running time, which is extended by 30 minutes over the original despite having disposed of its entire inspired prologue, pads the film with scene after scene of inane dialogue between characters, nightmares about malicious seaweed, a sudden PG-13 sex scene, telekinesis, expanded fuss over the town’s founding celebration, and unnecessary aerial establishing shots set to generic mid-oughts “modern rock.” With budget still to burn, the original ending was jettisoned for a series of overwrought period flashbacks to the origin tragedy on the Elizabeth Dale, culminating in a bizarre and poorly-designed conclusion that resembles a live-action cut scene from a CD-ROM video game.
Compared with the stylized framing and art direction of the original film, the remake of “The Fog” is painfully undistinguished. The predictable set-up of establishing shot, two-shot and exposition favoured by director Rupert Wainwright quickly becomes tiresome, befitting of a CW drama but too bland for a purported horror-thriller feature. Some competently constructed crash sequences do little to mitigate the overall pointlessness of the project.
Although Selma Blair is undoubtedly the best of a bad lot in this cast, she’s given even less to do than Adrienne Barbeau’s counterpart in the original, generally reduced to shrieking in her lighthouse DJ booth or cowering from the fog. The Elizabeth character (Maggie Grace) is more fully-drawn than in the original, but both she and Tom Welling are frequently delivering leaden dialogue that serves only to remind how disinterested everyone on this project must have been. We’re not even treated to an updated round of the kind of stunt casting employed in 1980 (John Houseman scaring kids! Janet Leigh running around!), so the final product ends up being a thrill-free update straining to be “hip with the kids” and ending up bloated.
Sapped of the verve that lifted Carpenter’s original, the remake of “The Fog” stares into the mysterious abyss and can’t muster the courage to ask why it exists. As fond memories of an economic 80-minute version of the same film subside, we’re reminded of the cycle of cash-grab remake dreck that classic films like “Halloween” (1978) served to initiate.Continue Reading Issue #25