John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) is a letdown, pure and simple. While it’s not quite a colossal misfire, what else are we to make of a film which begins so promisingly with its presentation as a modern but old-fashioned Gothic ghost story (complete with Edgar Allan Poe quote!) – with a grizzled old Captain telling a group of kids the frightening tale around a campfire on a beach in the oceanfront California town of Antonio Bay – and then devolves into a special effects extravaganza (on a limited budget, no less) that ultimately never quite pays off.
The Centennial of Antonio Bay is to be celebrated by a group of townspeople including a town elder (Janet Leigh), a radio disc jockey (Adrienne Barbeau), a mournful priest (Hal Holbrook) and a local (Tom Atkins) who picks up a stray hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis), who may or may not bring trouble with her wherever she goes. Unfortunately for everyone, many many decades ago, a ship of lepers was ousted from the town and betrayed by the elders, who caused them to die. Now, all these years later, the ghosts of the lepers are back for their pirate gold and to seek revenge on the town that turned their backs on them. Or something like that.
The film gets its name from the fog which rolls into town from the sea and seems to hide the ghosts of the leper pirates seeking vengeance. I wish I could say that this works as a scare tactic, but it feels a little…I dunno, trite? I actually think a more frightening film on some level could be gleaned if the fog was killing people by seeming accident – causing them to crash into things, somehow suffocating their breathing, etc. – and then if you had to reveal that it had a malevolence and a revenge streak you could do it, but it hopefully wouldn’t come off as ridiculous and unscary as the pirate ghost effect. This, of course, would be a different movie – a more organic, ecological disaster approach ala’ The Blob or The Birds, which was an obvious inspiration for Carpenter, who I think left it somewhere along the way a long time before this reached the screen, unfortunately.
Stevie Wayne (Barbeau), the mother of the young boy who first uncovers the pirate gold/plot and runs the lighthouse radio station in Antonio Bay, takes on perhaps the most involving or interesting character in the piece by the end. Directing characters on how to avoid the fog and where to go via her radio transmissions, she is a de facto Carpenter, steering the narrative to its final destination (yes, a claustrophic siege…again).
The film never returns to the creepy old-fashioned ghost story around a campfire framing device of its prologue, and there is some confusion here in that Stevie’s son is one of the kids around the campfire yet is part of the story, suggesting this could be his dream (which is never suggested otherwise) or that he’s inserted himself into the ghost story (which is never returned to). There are holes in the plot to be sure. Unfortunately, this is one of the many reasons that this is not Carpenter’s best work…by far.