Having caught the public's imagination with Hallowe'en, John Carpenter needed another big hit to cement his position as an ascendant low-budget filmmaker. After the release of Hallowe'en in October 1978, he began his working relationship with Kurt Russell on the Elvis TV-movie, which famously beat a re-run of Gone With the Wind in the American ratings.
The Fog is the kind of film that Hallowe'en would have been if Carpenter were not so adept at marrying storytelling to special effects. It contains a number of technically impressive set-pieces which foreshadow more expensive mainstream films, along with all Carpenter's directorial trademarks including a very good score. But although the story is as brutally simple as its predecessor, the film ultimately fails to make the most of it and ends up surprisingly dull.
Like Prince of Darkness after it, The Fog is on one level Carpenter's tribute to one of his favourite horror writers - in this case Edgar Allan Poe rather than H. P. Lovecraft. The film begins with a quote from Poe and a spooky prologue in which John Houseman sets the scene. This scene is very well-played, not only in creating the mood but in the level of horror it orchestrates. The fact that there are children present leads us to believe that the story is just another old wives' tale to stop people going out at night. But Houseman's delivery is so precise and dolorous that we can't help wondering whether we're mistaken.
Sadly, the suspense created in these first five minutes is completely undone by the following forty. With the exception of the prologue the first half of The Fog is very dull, with very little going on that is engaging or threatening in any way. Carpenter sets up a host of different characters who begin interacting in various ways, but none of these encounters on their own are enough to sustain our interest. Our emotional responses vary from annoyance directed at Janet Leigh to confusion as to how Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis ended up sleeping together so quickly.
Such shortcomings in the characters undercut the film's ability to truly frighten us. Until the sequence in the lighthouse with the burning driftwood, The Fog simply isn't scary, and its attempts to rectify this are desperately obvious. The scene of Father Malone reading from Blake's diary is so hokey that all we can do is smirk, and elsewhere all Carpenter comes up with is a few loud bangs in broad daylight. Even the elaborate opening involving clinking glass and car alarms contains nothing which is capable of generating a sustained level of terror.
In the absence of either engaging characters or proper scares, all we have left to admire in this section of The Fog are the special effects - which, as it turns out, are quite impressive. The low budget meant there simply weren't the resources to fill entire streets with artificial fog, let alone make it move in a certain way. To get around this all the wide shots of the coast and Antonio Bay's streets are done with scale models shrouded in black cloth, something you wouldn't notice unless you had studied the production in detail.
As for the fog itself, it's real fog. In contrast to the blatant CGI used in the remake, Carpenter used machines known as mole foggers to generate the sepulchral clouds and then guide them as best he could with carefully positioned fans. Dean Cundey, Carpenter's long-time cinematographer, lights the fog to get the greatest amount of menace out of what is essentially an inanimate object. When it's coming in off the sea, it shimmers with an iridescent blue, while in the boy's house it is the same lurid combination of red and green of 1950s Hammer.
Fittingly, it is one particular special effect which finally kicks The Fog into life (and no, it's not the TV turning itself on in the manner of Poltergeist). It comes when Adrianne Barbeau is in the radio station testing some pre-recorded demo tapes near the piece of driftwood her son found on the beach. While her back is turned, the wood begins to drip with water, until it works its way into the tape machine and garbles the sound. Barbeau turns round to find the writing on the plank has changed from 'Dane' to '6 will die', and then the whole thing bursts into flames.
Quite apart from its technical proficiency, this sequence is the first time in the film where we have both a real sense of tension and a provable physical threat. The execution of this scene conveys the supernatural elements of the story - water catching on fire - while retaining the physical grounding of the film's villains. And because the action happens so close to us on screen, we feel the beginnings of a connection to these characters and their rapidly darkening predicaments.
But again there is a problem. As the screen time accorded to the ghosts increases, we begin to ask questions about how they function on a physical level. Blending a supernatural force with natural elements (i.e. ghosts in fog) is a hard act to pull off, and as the film rolls on more inconsistencies come to light. Perhaps this is a result of the various production problems, which necessitated reshooting a third of the footage.
The Fog never sets out any kind of parameters in which the fog or the ghosts operate, and yet every time we try to impose our logic on it, it very quickly defies it. We assume that the fog has no power of its own - until it creeps of its own accord into the boat's generator. We accept that the ghosts cannot have influence without the fog - until the driftwood gets soaked. And we embrace the fact that the ghosts are physical, having to knock on doors rather than walk through them - except at the end, when they magically re-materialise in the church. Errors like this not only make the film confusing but work against our desire to become involved in the story and our desire to be scared by it.
Fortunately, there is just enough in the way of atmosphere created in the last half hour to prevent The Fog from completely collapsing. Carpenter's dynamic score is well-matched to the ominous shots of the fog creeping in off the coast, and several of the set-pieces work pretty well. The scene of Jamie Lee Curtis being attacked by the reanimated corpse is pretty creepy, as is the final confrontation in the church involving Father Malone and the shimmering cross.
The performances in The Fog are also pretty decent. Adrianne Barbeau, who was then married to Carpenter, gives a convincing performance as a local radio DJ, even if she does spend a little too much time screaming out repetitive instructions. Hal Holbrook brings a brooding presence to Father Malone, turning his few lines into something which seems more significant. And Janet Leigh gives her all in her last film role, sharing scenes with two graduates of Hallowe'en - one being Nancy Loomis, the other her real-life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis.
The Fog is a disappointing follow-up to Carpenter's greatest work. Its special effects, score and performances are just about enough to carry it through its running time, and there is some appeal in seeing a cutting-edge horror filmmaker re-approach an old-fashioned ghost story. But while technically interesting, it's also narratively inept, coming nowhere near the heights of its predecessors or Carpenter's subsequent greatness on Starman and The Thing.