Logic lost in The Fog

Scream queen stars with Psycho mom

Published: Apr 08 2015, 01:01:am

Sunday, February 17, 1980
THE FOG. Co-written and produced by Debra Hill. Music, co-writing and direction by John Carpenter. Running time: 91 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some frightening and violent scenes.
JOHN CARPENTER MAY BE WORKING too hard. According to the biographical notes sent along by the distributor of his current film, The Fog, he is currently involved in writing and directing two new feature films.
    Before The Fog rolled in, I would have greeted that announcement with a hearty hallelujah. His previous work suggested that he was a talent to be reckoned with, a young filmmaker who belonged in the same golden circle as George Lucas, Steven Speilberg and Francis Coppola.
    His feature debut, a $60,000 science-fiction satire called Dark Star (1974) was a gem. He followed that up with 1976's Assault on Precinct 13, a breathlessly suspenseful urban thriller (and one that will be on view all this week at the Hollywood Theatre).
    Last year [1979], Carpenter made another breakthrough. Elvis, his made-for-TV biography of the late rock star, was the top-rated program in its timeslot.
     Halloween, his third theatrical feature, released in October 1978, was a solid success at the movie box office. Halloween offered horror reduced to the essentials.
     It used a simple premise — a homicidal maniac — to create a sense of absolute evil. Like the shark in Jaws,
Halloween's maniac was little more than a killing machine. The movie was a masterful, almost unbearable mood piece, a film that ended with a brilliantly cruel twist.
    We saw the good Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasence) empty his gun into the killer. We saw the killer recoil backwards through a second-storey window, falling over a balcony to the ground below.
    Loomis turned to comfort the killer's intended victim, teenaged babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). We heard police sirens outside on the street.
         Carpenter's camera edged out over the balcony and we saw that the body was not there. Suddenly we remember that the killer was "killed" once before in the movie and got up. What if the creature behind the skull mask is not really human, but the embodiment of pure evil . . . ?
    Nor was the nightmare over. Halloween's residual effects lasted for weeks. Filmgoers experienced their own nightmares, little aftershocks of terror that stirred every time a shadow moved in a darkened room.
    Halloween was a shock success. The Fog, on the other hand, is a disappointment.
    Here the plot is more complex, the ending a more final conclusion and the aftershocks non-existent. We're left with a film full of inconsistencies, unexplained incidents, logical shifts and unexplored opportunities.
    The Fog is set up as a ghost story. It opens on a beach a few minutes before midnight. Children are gathered around a campfire listening to an old sea dog (John Houseman) telling tales.
    He tells them of the terrible fate of the Elizabeth Dane, a ship lured to her destruction one foggy night 100 years before. The dead, he says, will one day rise from their watery graves and seek out those who betrayed them with a false signal fire.
    Antonio Bay, California, one day short of the town's 100th birthday, is where the fog first appears. The crew of a fishing boat see a clipper ship glide alongside them in the mist. Silent, shadowy figures carrying hooks, sickles and cutlasses are the last things they see.
    Carpenter has his shock technique down pat. Unfortunately, by telling a tale of a curse fulfilled, he creates a need for firm internal consistency, a need he ignores.
    In The Fog, details have a way of undermining the effects. The more we are told, the less we believe. Some examples:
    According to Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), the betrayed mariners are seeking out the descendants of the six men who conspired against them. That's what we're told.
    What we see are apparently random killings. Only one victim is actually identified as a relation of the original, sneaky six.
    Towards the end of the picture, we're told that the ghostly invaders can be bought off by returning their stolen gold. A solid gold cross is found in the church basement and carried into the fog.
    But wait. Down on the beach we were told that they wanted revenge. Besides, that stolen gold was supposedly used to found the town, so what's it doing sitting around in a huge cruciform lump?
    The writer/director brings together some capable performers, among them Houseman, Holbrook, his Halloween star Curtis, 21-year-old Curtis's real life mother, Janet Leigh, and Carpenter's actress wife, Adrienne Barbeau.
    He sets up some truly terrifying situations and manages some striking visual effects. The problem is that in setting his machinery in motion, he neglects the need for logical explanation.
     In Halloween he got away with it because his villain was "the bogeyman." Carpenter's current film attempts to tell a more complex, involving tale.
     Somehow it all gets lost in The Fog.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In common with another Hollywood princess, Carrie Fisher (daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds), Jamie Lee Curtis was fated to become a performer. Unlike Fisher, whose second feature, 1976's Star Wars, was a blockbuster hit, Curtis found a more limited form of stardom. Her  debut in director John Carpenter's independent horror hit Halloween (1978) introduced her to movie-making on the margins. Her second feature, 1980's The Fog, was followed by starring roles in two made-in-Canada horror films, Prom Night and Terror Train (both 1980), and subsequent cult fame as a "scream queen." She travelled to Australia for director Richard Franklin's serial killer thriller Road Games, and reprised her Laurie Strode role in Halloween II (both 1981). Curtis then played a real-life Canadian in the made-for-TV Death of a Centrefold: The Dorothy Stratten Story (1981). She has been married to Christopher Guest since 1984. In a departure from the standard Hollywood practice for writer/directors with actress wives, Guest has made seven features without casting Curtis in any of them. She can be seen on screen with her mom, though. Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee first appeared together in a 1978 episode of the TV series Love Boat called Death Do Us Part. As noted above, Carpenter featured them both in The Fog, and they reunited once more for director Steve Miner's Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998).    

See also: Among the other Jamie Lee Curtis features in our Reeling Back archive are director Charles Crichton's A Fish Called Wanda
(1988), director Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel (1990), and director Yves Simoneau's Mother's Boys (1994).