The Fog - Tom Atkins' Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery

Out of all of John Carpenter's movies, this is one of them.

I can’t imagine what it was like to be Debra Hill.

By age 27, the young screenwriter had collaborated with future Terrible Blog favorite director John Carpenter on the most important horror movie of all time (with the possible exception of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, Psycho). She was only listed as a co-writer, but insofar as Carpenter was pulling quadruple duty directing, writing, composing and producing, it’s fair to estimate a substantial chunk of the dialogue ought to be credited to Hill. Lore states she was responsible for the female dialogue, which, to be certain, comprises the majority of spoken words (one of the reasons the movie works so well is the incredibly realistic interactions and reactions of the young female characters).

Halloween, as you damned well ought to know by now if you’re reading this website, went on to be the most influential horror film ever made, made a substantial amount of money, and turned Carpenter into a household name (extremely prescient of him to put his name above the title). This was very good news for Ms. Hill – she was dating John at the time, and they were very close as co-writers and co-producers. If you look at Carpenter’s future filmography, you can see the young couple was right to believe the future looked bright. Then Carpenter met Adrienne Barbeau.

I can only imagine what he saw in her.

The young director was instantly smitten. I’m not going to condemn Carpenter for drifting away from Hill, as lovers so often do, but I’m not going to defend him either. All I can do is be honest in what little I know of what happened. Barbeau was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, and she went on to be a minor sex symbol of the early 80s, thanks in no small part to Carpenter, who would direct her in The Fog and Escape from New York. I’ve seen footage of Carpenter being expressly kind and intimate with her while telling her every move to make, even dancing with her to the tunes of the radio on the set of The Fog. Meanwhile, his co-writer and producer had to watch all of that, just to make sure he did a good enough job directing one of the most beautiful women in the world.

I can’t imagine what it was like to be Debra Hill.

For whatever personal pain she went through – and I am certain it was not insignificant – Hill conspired with Carpenter to write an excellent horror movie in 1980’s The Fog. Halloween has often been called a perfect ghost story, which has always puzzled me, because there aren’t any ghosts in it, and it takes a hell of a lot longer to watch than it does to listen to a ghost story. The Fog, by comparison, is very clearly a ghost story – it’s centered on a cadre of attacking ghosts, it begins with a wizened old sea salt relating the ghost story in question right before the stroke of midnight to a group of children huddled around a dimming campfire, and there’s a dark, foreboding atmosphere. That’s really the most important element of a ghost story – well, that and one other important part.

A clever hook!

The point of a (good) film adaptation of a ghost story is to show the after-effects of the story in question. You don’t want to just show the hash slinging slasher getting fired from the Krusty Krab, you want to see what happens when he comes back, whether the legend was true, people disbelieving the story only to discover the grisly ramifications as salubrious juices flow from the walls, friends disappearing one by one, Nosferatu plays with the light switch, and…

You get my point.

Halloween did this very well; the ghost story is real (I mean yeah, it’s fictional, obviously, but it’s real in the movie’s universe okay), though some still either disbelieve or hardly grant it any weight because it happened so long ago. It plays upon the very realistic characters’ emotions and slowly creeps toward an imminent encounter with an almost supernatural evil. The Fog – and I know exactly what I’m implying here – does it even better.

The film begins, as mentioned previously, with a crusty old sea salt relating the tale of a crew of a clipper ship running into the rocks of a local beach due to a bonfire distracting them (imagine driving your car at night with the lights on inside the car – it’s a somewhat comparable effect). The bonfire was deliberate – six members of a town lit the fire to sink the ship to kill the crew to steal the gold that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built. The gold that was plundered was then used to found the town of Antonio Bay. Think “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” except with fiduciary fraud.

100 years after these morbid events (exactly 100 years later, to be precise), the town’s running strong. They’ve got a grand total of one (1) radio station, and it’s staffed by a 35-year-old Adrienne Barbeau doing her sultriest smoker’s voice while playing light jazz (and here I was thinking people in 1980 might have listened to Styx). Some guy with a big meaty face picks up a hitchhiking Jamie Lee Curtis. An ominous fog that doesn’t seem to obey the wind rolls in over the bay, bringing with it mysterious goings-on: glass shattering, a wooden plank leaking water, the walls oozing green slime (oh wait, they always do that), and a ghost pirate army bent on retribution.

And a genius with the ability to cloud men's minds

What The Fog does so masterfully is the slow creep of impending doom, and it matters that – much like Halloween – this is happening to very realistic characters. There is a very ugly trope in horror movies in which violence befalls hateful, immoral individuals as some sort of interpretation of Aesop’s fables. This is difficult for a lot of audiences; on the one hand they can enjoy seeing unlikeable characters getting punished, but it becomes far less scary than intended because there’s no relatability. If the characters in The Fog aren’t relatable, they’re at least believable. These feel like people in your hometown, or maybe the town where your family used to vacation.

Back to the horror, the comparisons to Halloween are inevitable, not just because of the same director/writers/producer, but because of the threat of murder approaching relatable characters in a modern day setting. This is something Halloween does much better; the fleeting images of Michael Myers peeking out from behind a white picket fence or an oak tree or some drying laundry is classic; I’m not sure if there’s anything about The Fog that can be called “classic.” The characters don’t question what’s going on nearly enough, there’s this bit that I don’t care about with the mayor/commissioner/poobah of the town (played by Janet Leigh, mother of Jamie Lee Curtis and veteran of the aforementioned potential greatest horror movie of all time, Psycho), and I’m not entirely sure why but one of the victims turns into a zombie for a few minutes.

All that being said, all the hallmarks of Carpenter’s greatness are on display. The Fog is a movie that undoubtedly looks good; it’s a very impressive movie visually (I especially love the design of the pirates, which remind me of the villain from The Secret of Monkey Island). Alfred Hitchcock was a man who could make a shower or a rope or a staircase or a bird or a back window terrifying; Carpenter did the same with a fleeting glance of a silhouette in Halloween, and he succeeded with the fog here. The realism, as mentioned repeatedly, is what’s so essential to make the transition to hellish revenge so terrifying. I wouldn’t be surprised if Silent Hill took a few beats from this film.

The Fog is now considered something of a cult classic, but it’s nowhere near as popular as Halloween, and I guess that’s for a good reason; hell, most people assume you’re talking about The Mist when you bring it up. I’m not comfortable saying The Fog is better than Halloween. Everyone and their iguana knows Halloween was far more influential, featured a far more interesting adversary, and even had (slightly) better music. There are little elements I prefer in The Fog, mostly concerning the visuals, but even then the framing in Halloween is so much better that it stands out as a constant reminder that The Fog is very much a forgotten middle child in a big family of hits. It’s not as good as Halloween. It’s not as good as Escape from New York. It’s not as good as The Thing. It’s certainly not as good as Big Trouble in Little China. It’s better than Christine, but what does that tell us?

Do you think this car hooked up with the Green Goblin truck from Maximum Overdrive?

It tells us that it was a very difficult production that I just don’t feel like everyone had their full attention on. The use of gore is increased from Halloween (remember how impressive it was to see such a terrifying movie that used such scant traces of blood?) but it doesn’t really help very much; it was added to keep up with movies like Friday the 13th. The final scare/kill in the movie is officially the cheapest, dumbest thing I’ve ever seen – it’s kinda funny, Friday the 13th did that better; so we have two of the most famous horror movies of 1980 and everyone will remember the unquestionably inferior one for its superior final moment. Boy, if Stanley Kubrick had deigned to grant us with a horror movie in 1980 it probably would have cleaned up!

Shine on, you crazy diamond.

One can hardly blame Carpenter for not having his full attention on the project at hand; he was too busy getting his hands all over Barbeau (wouldn’t you too, given the circumstances?). He would somehow make Escape from New York in under two years and then somehow make The Thing in under two years; it’s great (amazing, really) that he was able to turn out very high quality work in a short time for a small budget, but this is the first movie where it shows. Meanwhile I’m not quite sure the script focuses enough on the approaching horror; Hill just seems more interested in how Jamie Lee Curtis interacts with Tom Atkins’ humongous face. One can hardly blame Hill for focusing her attention on the interactions between a man and a woman.

It has been said that the annulment of an especially close romantic relationship is akin to losing a loved one to the icy grasp of death – or that the feeling is at least somewhat comparable. Everyone deals with loss and grief in their own personal ways; there’s no blueprint to coping. When Hill lost the most important person in her life, she decided she would cope by committing herself to writing. Scribo, ergo sum.

Perhaps I can imagine what it was like to be Debra Hill.


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