Since we’re all slowly and inexorably heading into the last day of the month of October, I’ve gotten to thinking about the perfect film to watch on Halloween. The sort of film where, to properly experience it, you have to turn off all the lights in your living room and surround yourself with friends or family, put a huge bowl of freshly made popcorn on the table to get that smell of hot butter in the air, and then cower together to scream and laugh while lit only by the glow of the television. We’ve all done it at least once, and it’s always fun, but it can be unforgettable if you pick just the exact right thing to watch.
This, in turn, got me to thinking about John Carpenter. Because, as you all remember, he just happened to make a little obscure flick called “Halloween”. Which, coincidentally, is why my own personal recommendation for the perfect film to watch on Halloween is “The Fog.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know. I am more than fully aware that “Halloween” the movie is awesome. In fact, it’s one of my favourite films and certainly one of the best films ever made. At the same time, it’s not the perfect film to watch on Halloween. Well… it kind of is, but I like to have unpredictable opinions. Maybe next week I’ll change my mind, but for now The Fog is the perfect film to watch on Halloween.
Also, I think I can back up this opinion. For one, The Fog is brutally efficient in its storytelling. If it’s not something scary or a setup for something scary to happen later, it’s not in there. This is stripped down terror at its best. There’s no fat, no filler. Just a pure 90 minutes of terror. It’s one of those films where you’ll catch a few minutes of it on TV or something and end up watching it through to the end credits without even realizing how much time went by because it’s so perfectly paced. Every scene is like carefully laid out dominos, one always pushing the next one forward.
If you’ve never seen it, The Fog is about ghost lepers who return on the 100th anniversary of their deaths while hidden amidst the titular otherworldly fog in order to seek revenge on the descendants of the people who killed them. Tom Atkins plays a fisherman, Jamie Lee Curtis plays a hitchhiker, Hal Holbrook plays a priest, Adrienne Barbeau plays a radio DJ, Ty Mitchell is her son, Janet Leigh plays the mayor and Nancy Kyes, who is my own personal carpenter favourite, plays the mayor’s assistant.
Yes, I realize all these characters have names. No, it kind of doesn’t matter. Because they barely function as characters. They’re archetypes at best. They have no dramatic arc, they just have a path to follow. Now, I know this almost makes the film sound bad, but The Fog isn’t meant to be high drama. It’s meant to scare you, and in I think it’s very very successful in that goal.
So let’s analyze a few individual scenes and see what I think makes The Fog work:
We’ll start with the first scene. The film opens, appropriately enough, on the beach with John Houseman as an old fisherman telling a story to a bunch of kids about a ship called the Elizabeth Dane that was lost during an odd thick fog after being led towards a reef by a campfire masquerading as a beacon. The ship sunk to the bottom of the ocean and all hands were lost. He then goes on to explain that when the fog returns the dead will rise to seek vengeance on those who built the fire.
I love the cinematography of this scene, and indeed of the whole film. The bare set, enhanced by long shadows and deep darks is just amazing to look at. Houseman’s somber face and voice are so convincing that you might as well be one of the kids listening to him in that moment.
Another scene, one that takes place a little bit later that night, are of three men on a fishing trawler out in the ocean. They’re sitting on their bunks talking and drinking beer when fog envelops their ship. Two of the men go out on deck and we get our first (and only) look at the ghost’s ship, and the scene is magnificent despite its brevity. The angle, the lighting, the reaction shots, all make the scene feel like it lasts ten minutes instead of a ten seconds. It’s exactly what you want a ghost ship to be. Old and grey and mouldy, with tattered sails. If the people behind the Pirates of the Caribbean films didn’t at least watch this scene I’d be a little disappointed in them.
After the ship’s apparition, the ghosts reveal themselves to the two men, and again it’s brilliant. They’re a trio of dark shadows just on the edge of visibility in the fog. Which, of course, is probably the best and scariest way to reveal them. Soon after that the men are gruesomely killed.
The scene’s pacing here is just about perfect. We spend enough time with the men to get to know them a little so they’re not just random victims, but not so long that the film momentarily forgets that its main goal is to scare us.
Also, I’m guessing, probably wrongly, that this whole movie was written around frightening images and ideas that John Carpenter and Debra Hill had in their heads.
Following the attack on the ship is a scene with Tom Atkins as a local fisherman and Jamie Lee Curtis as the hitchhiker he picked up in an earlier scene. Here we see them both lying in bed either just before or just after sex, presumably. It’s kind of hard to tell because Atkins is wearing an undershirt, which is both odd and charming. They’re talking about Curtis’ drawings. Much of the scene feels improvised on the spot by the two actors and feels very warm and almost realistic. That’s the thing about stripped down scripts. It gives the actors a chance to live and breathe in their roles and try some stuff, and Carpenter is a good enough director to leave his cast alone when they’re doing something that works.
Now, because this is a horror movie and not The Big Chill, a knock at the door is heard and we see that whoever’s standing there is knocking using a metal scythe and not his hand. Atkins, not recognizing the person at his door in the dark, walks over to answer. The clock is minutes away from one AM. The scythe rises just as Atkins turns the knob, opens the door and… The clock rings one in the morning. The witching hour is over. Whoever was at the door disappeared, even the fog is gone.
To me, this is all so efficient. Atkins and Curtis talked just enough for us to get to know them, and then the movie creeped us out with the scene of the ghost at the door. That’s what you want in a horror movie. Adding drama and backstories can work too, but more often than not it just comes off as inept and extraneous.
At the same time. Don’t get the impression that the whole movie is just people sitting around and then being scared or killed. There IS stuff happening. There are three distinct plotlines running concurrently: The first is the Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis one, where Atkins is trying to find out what happened to his friends on the trawler earlier. Then you have the Adrienne Barbeau one where she plays a single mom who moved to town not long ago to be a DJ at the local radio station and is starting to realize that the place may have some very dark and ghostly secrets. Finally, you have the Janet Leigh and Hal Holbrook storylines where you have the mayor trying to organize the town’s anniversary and the priest trying to stop it because he found a diary warning them that the dead are going to return when the town turns 100.
All in all, that’s the film. I skipped quite a bit of it and tried not to include any spoilers, but still tried to give you a good “feel” for what you’d get if you watch this. The simplest way I can put it is that The Fog is like the greatest and most messed up episode of Goosebumps you’re ever likely to see. A bunch of stuff makes no sense if you obsess over details, but in the moment it all feels fine. More than fine in my opinion, I think it’s really awesome.
On the negative side, it is a bit bare and short, and once you step outside of the viewing experience it can seem a bit silly. If you do even the most basic google search online you’ll see that people keep calling the ghosts in the film “Ghost Pirates” even though they’re 19th century lepers, but the fact is that the movie itself does little to shake this commonly held misconception. The ghosts carry swords just like pirates, and dress just like pirates, and ride on a ship that looks very piratey, And they’re looking for their stolen treasure of gold Spanish doubloons. In fact, if the movie didn’t give you an explanation about who they are and what they want you’d think they were pirates. For once, I don’t really blame people for getting it wrong. It’s an easy mistake to make.
Also, if I’m going to be nitpicking, I always felt that the ghosts’ powers are very vague and unexplained. On the one hand they seem very earthly, having to knock at your door before entering your house and needing to chase you on foot and chop you up with knives. Hell, one of them is even stabbed at one point and reacts to the wound. Which is not very ghostly when you think about it. Yet, at the same time, they can teleport, control electrical and mechanical objects, and possess dead bodies. Don’t get me wrong, it looks cool and all, but in the grand scheme of things it seems a bit incoherent. In yet another weird moment, Adrienne Barbeau’s son finds a gold coin on the beach that turns into a plank of wood, a piece of the ghost ship’s hull. No explanation for this. Later this plank starts to “bleed” water all over her radio console which then becomes possessed and starts to broadcast a ghost’s voice.
At the same time… meh. Who cares? If you’re looking for logic in a horror movie you may be there a while. Horror is about emotion and fear, not rational explanations. So Carpenter may have cheated a bit. Good for him that he got away with it. I certainly have never had any problems with this film, and I must have watched it fifty times. It’s every one of your childhood fears come to life. That’s why I think it works.
Besides, this isn’t a review. It’s a recommendation. Call up some friends, or your kids if you feel they’re old enough, and sit in the dark watching The Fog and eating candy. Relax. Have fun. Be scared. That’s what Halloween is all about. It’s like the man said “Everyone’s entitled to one good scare.”