A golden pocket watch hangs on the right side of the movie’s frame like a broken pendulum, or maybe a man from the gallows. It sways gently, showing five minutes before midnight. With laconic eyes and the careful accentuation of a raconteur, Mr. Michen (John Houseman) recounts to a gaggle of kids the moribund story of the Elizabeth Dane, a clipper ship captained by a wealthy man named Blake who had leprosy, and who wanted to set up a leper colony in Northern California. The ship, beset by a sudden fog bank, sailed towards a campfire mistaken for a lighthouse and crashed into the rocks. None survived. The story, which has been passed down from grandfathers to fathers to sons, is, of course, apocryphal. Unbeknownst to the storyteller, and to the town, the clipper was sabotaged by six men, one of them a priest. The gold, intended to pay for a place of solace for the suffering, was pilfered by the conspirators and used to build a town and a Church while Blake and his crew were left to the sea. Antonio Bay, an indolent coastal town fringed by a writhing body of water, seemingly populated by just a handful of residents and transients, is cursed.
Midnight. 100 years after the Elizabeth Dane’s demise, five minutes after the man finishes his tale, her crew returns as murderous, water-sodden revenants. They're looking to reclaim their gold, and six lives.
As with many of John Carpenter’s films, The Fog was considered a critical letdown when it premiered in 1980, though it made over 20-times its budget at the box office, and, as with many of Carpenter’s films, its stature has grown as the years pass. Like its spectral monsters, it refuses to be forgotten. It feels like a film afflicted with hypoplasia, incomplete and with certain parts malformed or underdeveloped, but whose soul shimmers in every incandescent image. Shot for just over $1 million, Carpenter’s follow-up to Halloween (1978) is even more modest in scope and story, more ascetic in character development, but the sublimity of the film comes from its mood, its pervasive, oneiric ghost story aura. It opens with an Edgar Allan Poe quote, the same one intoned by the ill-fated girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock: “Is all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?” Like that voluble master of the macabre, the film broods with a casual impetus, luxuriating in a mournful but gorgeous aesthetic instead of adhering to the standard narrative architecture of horror. It’s a tragedy tinctured by violence and horror.
While not nearly as lugubrious as The Thing (1982), or as nihilistic as Carpenter’s other horror films (although a kindly old woman gets hacked up by the apparitions), The Fog is more intimate, concerned with the corruption of a small town rather than the impending apocalypse of Prince of Darkness (1987) or the post-modern chaos of In the Mouth of Madness (1994). It treats human life as a fugacious state of being, but life also seems to linger, not forgiving or forgetting. There’s a sense of stagnation to Antonio Bay, as if torn from time and left adrift, collecting barnacles. Yet time is also elliptical, inevitable. The film begins with a dangling pocket watch, time moving forward while remaining immobile, and ends with a promise finally fulfilled. Carpenter, a deft craftsman who has always culled formal ideas from the films of the studio era (namely Howard Hawks), imbues his genre films with cynicism and despair; watching The Fog or The Thing or Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), you get the sense you’re watching a fever dream version of a story deeply ingrained in your memory. A Hammer film transported to 1980, a creature feature with a monstrous budget, an old western relocated to the squalid margins of Los Angeles. This usurpation of expectations, this transmogrification of the familiar into something personal, is the defining characteristic of his films.
In his five minutes onscreen, Houseman projects a world-weary sapience and sets the tone sustained for the next 80 minutes. The opening scene, one of the most intimately haunting of Carpenter’s career, was shot after initial production had wrapped, and it’s hard to imagine the film beginning any other way. From the opening moments, Carpenter conjures an ontological tragedy: These ghosts were people who existed, who lived, who were considered expendable and consumed by time and left to rot while a town got rich off of purloined gold. Antonio Bay, oblivious to its mendacious origin, prepares to celebrate its centennial, led by Janet Leigh, unaware that her fisherman husband has already been gutted by the vindictive ghosts. Waves sweep across the water, towards a sickle-shaped coast, like a crescent carved into the frame. The water and sand form a sort of yin and yang. A stolen blessing turns out to be an impending disaster. Blue-collar denizens work fishing boats, drink domestic beer from dented cans. The church is quiet save for the noise of a small radio and a cork being pulled from a bottle of whiskey. A local radio MC with a sanguine voice (Adrienne Barbeau) warns of an impending fog, though this fog seems to be moving against the wind. A man with a truck and a pack of cigarettes in his pocket (Tom Atkins) picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis). “Are you weird?” she asks him. “Yes,” he responds, to her relief. His windows abruptly rupture on a lonely stretch of highway, while across the town lights flicker and untouched cars sound their alarms. A lachrymose priest (Hal Holbrook), whose grandfather was one of the six original saboteurs, drinks his way towards oblivion when he’s supposed to be preparing a benediction for the centennial celebration.
None of these characters are particularly complex, and, save for the priest, who must atone for the sins of his forebear, everyone is motivated only by survival. Carpenter seems more enthralled by the town than its human inhabitants—its looks, sounds, feelings, the crepuscular reverie, an environment enfolding the unpersuasive characters. He revels in conjuring up an atmosphere of sotto voce suspense—whispering winds and sepulchral organs and veils of mist settling over the town like so much unswept gossamer—but the film is transpierced by occasional moments of slasher violence. When he began production on The Fog, Carpenter wasn’t yet aware of the unprecedented (albeit unhurried) success of Halloween, but by the time he had a rough cut of the film, he had inadvertently (and to his chagrin) begot a garish subgenre that took all the wrong lessons from Halloween. Compared to its bastard spawn, with all those libidinous victims felled by generic killers with dimestore masks, Carpenter’s film feels almost Spartan in its restrained and precise murders. To compete with the advent of the knife-wielding psycho movies, he reshot ⅓ of The Fog, perforating it with more quick cuts of sharp things stabbing people and faces contorted by the throes of sudden death. But even in these gaudier moments, Carpenter prefers the sound of flesh being flayed, unmoving shots of empty door frames after a man has been slit from ear to ear. He spends more time setting up a killing and dwelling on the empty room after than he does on the killing itself. In this regard, he’s more a master of suspense than horror. The Fog’s disparate and dispassionate slayings clearly interest him less than panoramic shots of lighthouses and beaches.
The uneasy union of sight and sound is a defining feature of Carpenter’s films, and here he unleashes a flurry of funeral organ notes over the alluring coastal vistas. The town and its underbreath of metaphysical dread recall Henry James with meat hooks. With plaintive shots of doorways, of grocery store aisles and lighthouses, and the tenebrous empty space of the frame, Carpenter marries Yasujiro Ozu and Val Lewton. Starting with Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter has shot all of his films with anamorphic Panavision 35mm, using the Steadicam-like Panaglide to move sinuously and voyeuristically, and filling empty space with dread in his static shots. The Fog, shot by Dean Cundey (DP of the first three Halloween films, Escape From New York , The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China ), has the most resplendent imagery of any Carpenter film. In Halloween Carpenter and Cundey hid Michael Myers in the corner of the frame, like a bedbug under a mattress. The Shape skulked in the recesses and arbors of suburban lawns, a kind of ghastly Where’s Waldo, demanding that viewers peruse the compositions. This augments panic, forcing viewers to watch actively. It makes viewers participants. The rigorous calibration, the astute compositions and camera movements, have a strangulating effect. The Fog breathes. Carpenter and Cundey use the entirety of the frame. Characters saunter from one corner to the adjacent, moving leisurely. There’s latent danger everywhere. The space between objects becomes menacing and beautiful, as do the ostensibly anodyne objects themselves (i.e. a chair innocuously placed in the background lunges towards the camera). You can bask in the imagery, but don’t get too comfortable.
If The Fog is still considered lesser-Carpenter, and still offers fewer enduring or iconic images than Carpenter’s more renowned films—there are no modified Shatner masks, no shiny red cars engulfed in flame, no hunks of Dadaistic beefcake like Roddy Piper or severed heads sprouting spider legs and skittering across the room—maybe that’s because the film is a more ethereal entity, something that permeates the mind but slips through the fingers. His next film, Escape From New York, is a more severe yet cartoonish vision, more traditionally fun, ingratiated to the histrionic attitude and low-budget ingenuity of 1950s sci-fi. (It had a budget of $6 million; The Thing, made the next year, had a budget of $15 million.) Unlike The Fog and it's coterie of simple characters, Escape From New York predominantly follows one character, Snake Plissken, an eye-patched, mulleted anarchist, played with a mix of sincerity and acerbic irony by child star-turned-badass Kurt Russell. He sucks down cigarettes and spits out bourbon-breathed braggadocio with palpable contempt. His political stance, one that will never really go out of style, is, “I don’t give a fuck about your war, or your President.” He is, in look and manner, simple enough to be imitated (say, by college kids on Halloween), but eccentric enough to be become an immediately identifiable figure (Snake inspired a video game character, also named Snake, from Hideo Kojima’s meta, cinema-indebted espionage series Metal Gear, voiced with Russell-aping gruffness by X-Men screenwriter David Hayter).
The collection of simple attributes and details come together to make Snake Plissken a cinematic icon, even though he’s no more complex than Jack Burton, the bumbling sidekick who thinks he’s a hero in Big Trouble in Little China. With economy and simplicity, Carpenter creates the indelible, and in Russell he found his best collaborator. Michael Myers remains Carpenter’s most identifiable creation, though it’s The Shape’s utter lack of eccentricity that defines him. Snake is the first of Carpenter’s muscled, masculine heroes, an archetype the filmmaker would manipulate to satirical effect with Russell’s Jack Burton and Roddy Piper’s unnamed blue collar bruiser. Even Snake’s name is catchy, a cute appellation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Thomas Pynchon or Jonathan Lethem novel. Snake carries with him an air of immitigable ennui, an apathetic inclination towards the apocalypse. He doesn’t care what happens to humanity, but when threatened, he will fight to survive. “I heard you were dead,” characters repeatedly tell Snake. “I am,” he retorts to one, after giving her a cigarette, and moments before shooting his way past ravenous underground dwellers. He doesn’t give a shit about the human race, but he’ll fight to survive. The Fog is a ghost story, which necessarily requires a degree of vagueness in villain (fog is not particularly menacing until you fill it with hook-wielding ghosts) and locale (Antonio Bay could be any coastal town in America). Horror preys on a mix of the familiar and the vague, i.e. Michael Myers, a whey-faced white guy in a mechanic’s suit stalking babysitters in suburbia. Escape From New York is overtly rooted in a specific epoch, a specific locale and attitude: Koch-era New York, but from an outsider’s perspective. The film’s dystopian vicinage, which only kinda resembles the real New York, reflects how the rest of America saw the city as a festering wound, seedy, crime-inundated, with a porno theater on every street and a prostitute on every corner. It looks as if, in accordance with Gerald Ford’s mis-quoted request, it really did drop dead. This mythical Manhattan was alien to Carpenter, who was born in upstate New York and raised in Kentucky. He sent location manager Barry Bernardi on a sojourn to find “the worst city in America,” which, Bernardi surmised, was not New York, but East St. Louis, a place teeming with derelict buildings scattered among the city like steel husks. (The 69th Street Bridge, an abandoned part of the New York Central Railroad that crossed the Hudson to New Jersey and now leads nowhere, is played by the Chain of Rocks Bridge. One wonders if Carpenter decided to set the climactic car chase on the 69th, not exactly an iconic piece of New York history, because imitating the unique architecture of the Brooklyn or Manhattan or Williamsburg Bridge would be too difficult.) Aided immeasurably by James Cameron’s matte paintings (the decrepit gray skyline, like a row of rotten teeth, wouldn’t be out of place in Cameron’s The Terminator, released three years later), Carpenter turns his fabulist idea of Manhattan into a penal purgatory, the chthonic entanglement of streets rife with maniacs who’ll lop off your head and stick it on a pike on Broadway, but who are still less dishonest than the bureaucrats who sent them there.
The corrosion and fraudulence of governing systems, ruling classes, and figures of authority is a theme impregnating all of Carpenter’s films: The ineffectual fascism of America’s armed forces, the insidious ubiquity of capitalism and the megalomaniacal stranglehold of corporate influence, the venal secrets of the Church, the prolat rage and mistreatment of the working class stuck in a rolling boil. The lower-class are victimized and villainous—leprosy-stricken sailors, betrayed by a priest, returning as wraiths, or the marginalized and persecuted rising up against their cheese dip-faced alien overlords, or the United States government. The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), a black man, ascends to power while incarcerated, surrounded by deplorables. He's feared and respected. If the notion of New York turning into a 22.82 square-mile prison seems a little outlandish now, the idea of American turning into a fascist police state will, in all likelihood, never feel outdated. This obviousness is an asset here. Carpenter may not be subtle in his political incisions (They Live is as subdued as a haymaker), but he is confident. Sometimes there’s a poignancy to feeling as if a film is slugging you in the jaw.