Films That Haunt Me: “The Fog” (1980)

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Janet Leigh, and Jamie Lee Curtis

This may be an unusual choice, especially from the endlessly terrific filmography of John Carpenter. But there’s something about this film that I’ve never forgotten, and will always love.

“The Fog” is Carpenter’s followup to his 1978 indie megabeast, “Halloween,” which everyone and their grandmother has seen. I love that film for not only its incredibly disturbing villain, but also for the thick-as-blood atmosphere that begins oozing into you in during the opening credits. So, I thought, what can it hurt to seek out his next film? 

In many ways, “The Fog” is a more complex film, and a more old-fashioned horror story. It follows the disconnected lives of several townsfolk preparing to celebrate the 100th birthday of their little seaside village… just as strange things begin to happen. In a gleefully spooky opener, we learn the dark history of the town – that it was built on the gold of murdered men – and that this history is doomed to repeat itself. It’s your usual campfire tale fare, a group of dead souls return from their watery grave to get revenge on those who wronged them. Add Carpenter’s genius for soundtrack and creeping atmosphere, and you’ve got this film.

There are plenty of opportunities for this film to become just another ghost-zombie-kill movie. And to a lot of people, I’m sure it is. But this film played ruthlessly on my childhood love for a good spook story, and even worse, on many of my primal fears. I’m a huge sucker for movies that have the aura of Halloween around them, and Carpenter seems to nail that atmosphere perfectly. Pile on to that the wonderful depiction of a quiet small town on the brink of supernatural horror, and you’ve got me hooked.

I can’t ignore the cast, either. Any film that has both Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis, plus a few veterans from Halloween, can’t lose. And that is yet another thing that elevates this film above the standard fare for me – its characters are simple but fully realized, and played well by the cast. That’s rare in horror, especially in the 80s. 

“The Fog,” like I said, also plays on so many basic terrors. The titular fog always conceals more than it reveals, rolling in slowly around houses and followed by slow knocking on doors and windows. The ghouls are also great – simply designed and never fully seen, but classic in their rotting-seaweed design. These elements all sizzle together, met with Carpenter’s score (rivaling his first in my opinion), and explode into a suspense-ridden nightmare that is as fun as it is terrifying. This is one of the only films to make me verbally express fear. I hold that in high regard.

All of these things – score, imagery, classic story, setting – add up to the perfect horror experience for me. There is no attempt to be flashy or wild in this film; Carpenter allows his story to speak its own language and express its quiet terror without interference. It’s a pure and simple horror, something nearly impossible to find now, and because of this it works beautifully. This is the perfect film for an October night, when you’re looking for something that touches on the otherworldly. 

So, is it Carpenter’s best? Not by any means. But this is the one that comes to my mind most often, when the air is just calm enough that you could imagine a fog rolling in.

For the previous installment of “Films That Haunt Me,” CLICK HERE.

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