What you can't see won't hurt you…it'll kill you!
In 1980, writer/producer/director John Carpenter and co-producer/writer Debra Hill followed up their smash independent horror classic Halloween with the kind of creepy, atmospheric, and moody ghost film that Hollywood seemed, until very recently, to have forgotten how to make. Called The Fog, it was a movie likely doomed from the start to fall into the shadow of its predecessor. The film did moderately well but fell well below the expectations that were placed upon it. Still, time can often be very kind to films as they develop their own strong following, very often placing the term "cult classic" on the particular film's cinematic head. Such is the case with The Fog and in honor of its special status within the halls of horror, MGM has delivered as good a special edition of The Fog as any of its legion of fans could have hoped for.
Facts of the Case
100 years ago, the tiny hamlet of Antonio Bay was founded on the treachery of several of its most upstanding citizens. This treachery caused the death of all aboard the Elizabeth Dane. One hundred years have passed and the men of the Elizabeth Dane have returned to repay the deed.
If you go back and look at the career of John Carpenter, you will find a remarkable string of artistic successes that stretched over a span of 12 years. In 1976 he starts with Assault on Precinct 13, then moving on to Halloween, the Elvis television bio falls between film projects, then in almost rapid fire succession comes The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble In Little China, Prince of Darkness, and ends with 1988's They Live. The man is obviously directing films today, but few have lived up to the ambition and clear-headed storytelling that dominated the films from that period. I'm not saying that all of these films succeed totally but each is able to impress and chill on their own terms. I don't know exactly what that proves except that when people sit down and talk about the great American film directors, let alone film directors in the horror genre, John Carpenter belongs in the discussion.
Which brings us to the film before this court, the vastly underrated 1980 film, The Fog. It has aged surprisingly well. The film frightens not so much by showing the audience everything, although there was some slice and dice tacked on to the film after its initial cut, but rather it lets the audience imagine what is going on. It is a style of filmmaking that looks back to the earliest roots of horror. Atmosphere is king and Carpenter, along with master cinematographer Dean Cundley (Rock-n-Roll High School), pile the atmosphere on. If the atmosphere is indeed king, then pace is next in line for the throne. Here again Carpenter does not disappoint. Set along the water, The Fog may appear to have a languid pace but everything really is kept moving at a brisk clip. Carpenter, in partnership with editors Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace keep this tale afloat by giving equal time to the film's ensemble cast, cutting away to build suspense and zeroing in when going for the throat. Carpenter has a precise way of choosing a shot, filling the screen beautifully and knowing just where to have the camera. In an art form that is frequently excessive and overblown, Carpenter has a distinct point of view while remaining a master of economy.
If there is another trait that separates The Fog from other horror films, it is the intelligence of its screenplay and the way it refuses to paint any of its main characters in a simplistic fashion. There are no screaming stereotypes running around this film and The Fog is better for it. The town of Antonio Bay is populated by strong women, a Carpenter calling card and decent, if flawed men. There is a frankness to life and to sex that speaks volumes as to how real people react, giving The Fog the veneer of possibility. This factor is another calling card of Carpenter's. He somehow manages to create real people who live ordinary lives and forces them to deal with unspeakable horrors in terrifying situations. He seems to respect the people he deals with rather than taking the usual condescending tone of Hollywood when it is dealing with "ordinary folk."
There are no real villains running around The Fog. Even the hell-bent-on-revenge ghosts are men who were wronged a century before with beyond the grave grievances most of us are able to comprehend. Plus, it's hard to not like a film that has the stones to take a character actor like Tom Atkins (Escape From New York) and make him the movie's romantic lead, able to bed the pretty young girl in the form of Jamie Lee Curtis (Trading Places) within screen minutes of their meeting. It is this frankness about sex that I mentioned earlier that is one of the ways The Fog breaks the usual horror mold. It's this easygoing sexual nature that typically is the kiss of death for most actresses in horror movies. In The Fog, it's just the nature of a healthy, intelligent, and normal girl. A girl who survives, scared, but with dignity intact and is proudly not a virgin. Let it be known that Atkins and Curtis are not the only acting standouts. The former Mrs. John Carpenter, Adrienne Barbeau (Swamp Thing), is the de facto leading actor and it's her voice that speaks over the airwaves of Antonio Bay, binding the narrative of The Fog together in an interesting and unusual fashion. Barbeau does not get lost in the shuffle of the movie and is actually quite effective. Jamie Lee Curtis' famous mom, Janet Leigh (Touch Of Evil), turns up in the film as well and she adds a needed touch of class, if not film royalty to the proceedings. The venerable John Houseman (The Paper Chase) opens the film with all the background the audience needs to know, economy once more, while the best acting award goes to Hal Holbrook (All the President's Men) as the local clergyman, Father Malone. If there is a character with darkness, it is Malone. Yet, Holbrook refuses to make his priest a cardboard cutout, instead showing that he is a good, if flawed man of faith. His willing sacrifice is what provides the emotional soul of The Fog.
It seems like their are two trains of thought for DVDs over at MGM. One is the K-Mart approach to discs—bare bones, generally anamorphic discs that retail in the $9.99 ballpark. The other is the Target style releases—still affordable releases that seem to have more perceived value because of the special features. The Fog happily sits in the latter category.
First up is the video, and what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be. The Fog was very much a low budget affair, but it's hard to know that when you look at the production design as well as Dean Cundley's beautiful cinematography you are going to lose if you watch the wrong side of the disc. For this release, MGM has offered up a double sided, dual/single layered disc that features the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio in anamorphic widescreen, while the flip side displays a dramatically cropped hack and scan transfer. Carpenter movies are prime examples to me of why original aspect ratio is the preferred method of watching films. Carpenter treats his line of vision like a painter treats his canvas, and to view it pan and scanned is to lose a great deal of his film's visual power.
The transfer itself is not perfect. There is the expected grain present from any film shot anamorphic and it is certainly noticeable here, although to be fair it never proves overly distracting. It also should be noted that there are some pretty obvious compression artifacts throughout the movie. The purity of the digital medium also rears its head as it sometimes calls attention to the film's low budget and the vintage special effects. I'm specifically referring to the movie's fog effects as well as the footage shot after the completion of principal photography to help punch up the gore factor. With those problems aside, the transfer features excellent colors that are vibrant and life like, excellent detail in the shadows, and contrast that is hardly found to be lacking. It may be a cliché to say this but this is probably as good as The Fog has ever looked.
On the sound end, we find yet another case of a studio taking what was fine before and dressing it up while trying to make it prettier. The Fog's original mono track has been cleaned up, remixed, and labeled as a brand new 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track. Well, you know what? The mix is still little more than big, fat mono. Almost everything is located in the center channel with rear surround and the .1 LFE channel pretty much nonexistent. This is not to say that things don't sound good; they do. Dialogue is clear, dynamic range is strong, and background distortions are barely present. I understand why the thing was remixed; I just don't think it was needed.
Viewing the extra content on this DVD version of The Fog gives me great hope for MGM's upcoming special edition of Escape From New York because this really is a very good package. First up is the newly produced featurette called Tales of the Mist: The Fog. It runs about 30 minutes and pretty much covers everything anyone needed to know about the origins and the production of The Fog. All the main players are heard from, excluding Jamie Lee Curtis and the reason behind the gorier re-shoots are explained. Also included is the vintage making-of featurette from 1980 entitled Fear on Film: Inside the Fog, and it's about as dated and amusing as everyone would expect. The real gem of the disc is a direct port from the old laserdisc: the running commentary from John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Carpenter commentaries can be divided into two categories—by himself, which equals boring, or with someone else, which means pretty entertaining and interesting. While I don't think this is as funny as any of his commentaries with Kurt Russell or even his latest yack track on Ghosts of Mars, it's still a very good listen. These are very much old friends talking about a good period of their lives, and this familiarity comes through. Carpenter has noted himself that he basically makes the same movie over and over again, so I find it interesting that he can talk about the same basic subject matter and make it as engaging as he does. This is mandatory listening both for The Fog fans and Carpenter groupies. The disc is closed out by TV and theatrical trailers, a storyboard to film comparison, outtakes, and some behind-the-scenes materials. All in all, hats off to MGM for an excellent little disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Go in looking for Friday The 13th style mayhem, and you are likely to walk away disappointed. Go in looking for lots of T&A, and again you will be let down. Go looking for a thoughtful, moody, and effective little thriller, and we have something to talk about afterwards.
In John Carpenter's screen history, The Fog may be no Halloween or The Thing, but it is certainly one of the director's better, if more seldom seen works. MGM provides an excellent showcase for the movie and it is priced to sell. If you liked The Others or The Devil's Backbone, you will probably like The Fog as well. If you are a Carpenter fan and have not seen this movie, don't admit your shame to anyone and pick this disc up.
The Fog is clearly an excellent horror film and it is acquitted of all charges.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Debra Hill
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