The Fog (1980) Cigarette Burns 16mm Screening
Ahoy matey’s, and let’s begin with a bold statement – I think the genre run of John Carpenter from 1974 to 1986 is the greatest sequence of movies in genre cinema history. Now, the key word in that sentence is genre, just to be crystal clear does this sequence of films equal the 1950’s Samurai drama cycle of Kurosawa? Probably not. How about the astonishing quartet that Coppola spawned between 1972 and 1979, including both Godfathers, the small matter of Apocalypse Now and cinegeeks sound freak favourite The Conversation? That’s four masterpieces, right there. How about Stan’s run from 1964 to 1980, including two of the greatest SF films ever made, the darkest black comedy ever unleashed, the most ravishing photographed film of all time and the most sustained, terrifying film ever committed to the silver scream? Well, obviously I’d probably cite the latter as the most impressive run ever but as I say we’re taking about a genre director whom has restricted his cinema to the fantastical, horrific and SF spectrum of spectacle, and maybe there is just a small chink of nostalgia influencing my opinion as these are the films I grew up and they will always have an inalienable place in my heart – tonight’s piece The Fog alongside Escape From New York were the first VHS ‘sell throughs” I ever bought, the cornerstone of a near thirty year collection. OK, if you’re gonna be strict about this then yes we should strip out the two TV movies Somebody’s Watching Me and his Elvis bio-pic as they aren’t strictly part of the serious canon, he didn’t even direct and only wrote the former, there just seemed to be an odd tradition for some prestige TV pieces to also get big screen upgrades back in those days (see also Duel) which is kinda ironic now if you consider that big screen directors are instead going to the small screen in order to tell their stories unfettered by studio interference and modern market restrictions. Anyway, I think if you consider the cycle as its own entity which pentagrams out from apocalyptic body horror to SF infused comedic social commentary, from a global religious terror to urban westerns, from the first real incarnation of kung-fu and martial arts fantasy in Hollywood (long before it gained wider traction in the late 1990’s by the way) and early contact with celestial saviours, taken holistically it’s a body of work which strengthens as the years roll by, prefiguring many of the trends and movements which subsequent genre directors have failed to equal – I mean show me any contemporary horror director who achieves this brooding, atmospheric and chill inducing opening with a simple fucking speech;
Heh, I know one shouldn’t scry youtube comments but the general consensus seems to be ‘these three minutes are better than the entire fucking remake – I’ll drink to that along with Father Malone (hic). The sleepy town of Antonio Bay squats peacefully on the Pacific seaboard, a town where not much ever happens, and the only recent spark of excitement is struck by the towns imminent centenary celebrations with local dignitary Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) insisting on a smooth evening of ceremonial pleasantries in order to further her political career. That evening, a portentous 24 hours before the gloomy anniversary a fishing trawler drunkenly stuporing out off the coast is assaulted by maggot infested apparitions from Davy Jones locker, the strangely saturated post-mortem scene raising the suspicions of local cool dude about town Nick Castle (Tom ‘They’re dead‘ Atkins) whom alongside his new squeeze Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis)decides to investigate the mysterious deaths. Meanwhile local DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) is puzzled at the origin of a strange piece of driftwood that her son acquired on the beach, an antique piece with a rather strange ability to spontaneously weep a briny discharge and emit a keening, mumbling warning that ‘six must dddiiieeee‘ as local drunken priest Father Malone (a reeling Hal Holbrook) is surprised to discover some ancient gold booty secreted within the vestibule walls of his modest church, a refuge for the spiritually afflicted whose founding also factors into the spectral proceedings. As night slowly falls wispy tendrils begin to coalesce into a swirling and seething mass, as the incorporeal and undead crew of The Elizabeth Dane return to extract a lethal vengeance and demand a blood reckoning for an ancient, suffocating crime….
Before we get into the review propter I’d best set some context, this was a very rare 16mm screening of the film hosted by the Cigarette Burns collective, commissioned to arrange an evening to celebrate a re-release of the film’s soundtrack on Death Waltz recordings, it took them a year to source an actual analogue print of the film after casting their wide net across European distributors and exhibitors, which they then hosted in the suitably spooky domicile of the Nave church / performance space in Islington. To be honest I was a little hesitant about the event at first, whilst the location isn’t Ground Zero of London’s hipster central you’d certainly suffer third degree burns if an irony nuke was detonated, and I wasn’t sure if the evening was going to be more of a schmooze and booze drenched mistmob rather than a dedicated screening of the film, as many of the events like this alongside the Secret Cinema brand has shifted more to the interactive, ‘social’ side of the event rather than centering the most important element front and centre – projecting the damn film in the best sound and visual quality possible. Thankfully my concerns were allayed as the screening was the centre point of the schedule, and they’d even decked out the space with miniature lighthouses and spinning silent orange hued Klaxons, with just a hint of murky dry ice hanging in the air. It was all quite expressive but just to have something to moan about they could have spent a few more doubloons on the seating arrangements which reminded me of school assembly due to the deployment of those uncomfortable plastic upright chairs which you may remember from your own misspent youth. As you might expect the print wasn’t exactly pristine but you can’t fault the crew for that given the expedition they had in spearing the only surviving chemical print in Europe, compared to the proliferation of Blu-Ray and other digital screenings in the capital I’ll take a murky and distressed image over sterile technology any day of the week, it’s just so much more atmospheric for events such as this when attention has been lavishing on all elements of the experience – all the conspirators have avoided a jaunt down the leper infested plank.
The Fog tends to get obscured by the higher profile pictures in Carpenters canon such as the genre piercing Halloween and the widely beloved The Thing, even the likes of Escape From New York tend to leap more to mind than this petrifying placeholding picture, but I will always have a very fond spot for this ghostly apparition on Carpenter’s chilling curriculum vitae as it does have its merits beyond adolescent nostalgia. Like Blake’s ominous avatars it spears its prey with a simple directness and lack of metaphor, I think they simply wanted to tell a frightening, old-fashioned ghost story and on that front they certainly succeeded, and what it may lack in social profundity or metaphoric mileage it eclipses with sheer atmosphere, a slow build of ominous asides dovetailing down to a historic night of unrestrained creepy carnage. For a horror film it has some striking imagery from cinematographer Dean Cundey – a frequent Carpenter collaborator during this era and also the DP behind Jurassic Park, Apollo 13 and, erm, Jack & Jill – it’s his keen eye for meshing in-camera models and prosthetics with ‘normal’ actors and sets which maintains the supernatural semblance. Blake and his kin are quite rightly glimpsed only as shadows lurking in the prowling mists, before striking like a shudder-inducing imperceptible viper, finally giving us that all important final money shot that every horror / monster genre requires – a great conclusion. Like the best horror which aims to genuinely unsettle and disquiet it plays on our species most primal and ancient fears, of predators obscured out there in the dark, waiting to strike and feast, to fuel their unholy appetites.
It wasn’t the most comfortable of shoots by all accounts and after an initial assembly Carpenter realised to his horror that he didn’t have a movie, so reshoots and extra material were swiftly lensed in order to buttresses the parallel cross cutting ending, JC insisting on capturing the whole expedition in anamorphic 2.35:1 format which remains far from the norm for horror cinema. The wider horizontal frame gives the whole tale a deeper, more resonant, more palpitating and simply more of an epic infrastructure, especially when the simple cinematic Academy ratio of 1.375:1 was the standard charnel house definitions for trapping all those dissected teenage harridans or sweaty palmed eviscerated jocks, the usual fodder of 1980’s horror movies in the golden age of the slasher picture. I’m guessing any gorehounds will also know that this was Carpenters first collaboration with SFX maestro Rob Bottin which went on to masterpiece heights with their next collaboration The Thing, and yes that’s Bottin as the vengeance wielding Blake in that final, pulsing showdown scene. Also for we Carpenter fans this is also the one with the most lethal drinking game imaginable, if when spotting members of his usual troupe you’ve got to guzzle a whisker of rum then after appearances from Nancy Loomis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Adrienne Barbeau, George Flowers and the always terrific Menagerie favourite Darwin Joston you’d be slaughtered before that discombobulated crew had the time to shuffle from their accursed vessel.
Taking a completely dispassionate eye the film does have some structural problems, the way that the various characters all fall together into the final showdown is more coincidence than concerted plotting, and perhaps the notion of character development is as elusive as grasping the titular weather phenomenon, but the atmosphere of small town Americana being visited by these mouldering phantoms from beyond the grave which really makes The Fog pluck at the fear clusters, with Carpenter’s soundtrack orchestrating in perfect unison the on-screen nightmare. The usual gothic tradition of current generations paying in blood for the sins of their elders is there if you want it, whether they are penitent and godly citizens or not the sins remain and demand a scimitar shorn reckoning, a stain of history which could be expanded out to America’s wider genocidal genesis, or maybe like Father Malone I’ve had a few too many brandies (hic). Some final general points, viewing the film this time around there is something very late Seventies / early Eighties about Tom Atkins managing to get Jamie Lee Curtis into bed roughly three minutes after picking her up hitchhiking – this was pre AID’s and Atkins is evidently a legend with the ladies – and the presence of Janet Leigh (of Psycho fame obviously) and Lee-Curtis (Halloween, obviously) means that the film has some serious cache as one of the core answers in any horror themed film quiz worth its gut flayed entrails – which other film has a mother & daughter partnership starring the leads of two other horror classics? Anyway as always here is the salty rogues gallery of documentaries and associated material on the film, and finally the rarely seen trailer which makes me muse about the current cinephile debate ‘Do trailers show too much of the finished product these days?’;