I grew up in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where fog is a big deal. It would often be so thick that my elementary school would delay the start of the school day until it lifted. Walking to school in the fog would have meant certain death.
I remember the fog from the back of my mom’s station wagon, driving home from Grandma’s house after dark, the headlights illuminating nothing but a wall of mist. At any moment, a figure might materialize from the fog in the middle of the road. There would be no time to swerve. Or a truck traveling the opposite direction might appear, drifting into your lane, its driver fast asleep. The fog creates tension. You hold your breath until you reach home safely.
Not a bad atmosphere for a horror movie. Sadly, “The Fog” (1980) is one of John Carpenter’s lesser works (to be polite). It gets bogged down by a complex plot involving a curse, a hundred year anniversary, and a magic gold cross. It features a pack of ghosts who appear from thick air (See what I did there?) but always on the outside of a locked door, obliging them to break down the door like a bunch of dumb zombies. Why not wait for the fog to seep under the door and then appear inside the house? I guess they’re not that smart.
The opening scene is wonderful though. It shows a crusty old salt whispering a ghost story to a bunch of kids gathered around a campfire. Their mouths agape, they lean forward in anticipation. I wish the whole movie had that feeling, but it’s neither scary enough nor campy enough.
My mom and her best friend would disagree with me, though. They saw this movie in its original release when they would have been in their mid- late-20s. It clearly struck a nerve somewhere. They still bring it up in conversation, and I went to see it based on their well-known enthusiasm for it.
But for me, “The Fog” doesn’t capture that feeling of creeping terror that you get when you’re surrounded by real fog, when dangers of all kinds could be just a few feet away… if you could only see that far.
I saw “The Fog” at BAM on a wonderfully scratched up 35mm print as part of their John Carpenter retrospective, which continues through February 22nd.