Sunday, March 21, 2010

Retro Review: The Fog (1980)

It's the centenary of the foundation of Antonio Bay, a tiny fishing town in Northern California. The residents are getting ready for the unveiling of the statue of Elizabeth Dane, the ship whose wreck provided the gold that enabled the colonists to build the foundation of their beloved, secluded town. However, the synth arpeggios in 7/8 suggest something else entirely. Is there something in the fog? Yes, there is.

John Carpenter's run of films from the uncannily brilliant Dark Star (1974) to the ridiculously brilliant They Live (1988) is nothing short of admirable. Yes, there were duds along the way - personally we all could have been spared Christine (1983) - but most of these films are part of the horror and sci-fi cannon: Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982) ... the list goes on. The Fog is somewhere in between and it shall comfortably remain there after watching it for the second time in as many years.

The thing that makes The Fog a watchable and enjoyable fare to this day is due to Carpenter's ability to direct a group of characters to great effect. Although Jamie Lee Curtis is portrayed as the ultimate last-girl-standing in Halloween, it is an ensemble piece. Kurt Russell's MacReady may be the dude we all root for in The Thing, but it's the whole ensemble that makes it such an amazing piece of filmmaking. The Fog benefits from the same treatment with Carpenter regulars Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis, Adrienne Barbeau, and Tom Atkins sharing their fair share of hero(ine)-dom. And continuing from the tradition of casting a classic horror actor, Janet Leigh makes sure that her daughter behaves on set.

So, if everything is in place, what makes The Fog a somewhat inferior film to the others? Well, for starters imagine watching a film with Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale (wait ... I think they've done that one) - the acting is definitely on par with that monstrosity. B-movies tend to have bad acting, I hear you say. Well, at least they are funny (intentionally or unintentionally). The Fog is devoid of any humour and that makes it hard to actually tag along and "enjoy" the ride, so to speak.

There is a disturbing shallowness to the characters and a chronic lack of development in their personalities. They aren't even archetypes of the Greek drama, or cliches from other films - they are one-dimensional and, frak me are they boring!

I'm not going into the plot, because there is none.

So, how come I still like it then. Well, Carpenter has shown recently that he may have run out of ideas, but there are very few directors (in any genre) that can set a tone as well as this guy. The final confrontation in the church is a case in point. Despite all its flaws, The Fog is a very cohesive and consistent film. The horror aspect is never overplayed, yet it doesn't succumb to extreme subtlety either - it is just right. In fact, subtlety is doesn't even exist in the same universe as Antonio Bay as the priest carries a huge cross (made of solid gold) and offers himself as a sacrifice in one of the key scenes. Hit me baby one more time. The visual effects have dated, but as retro effects go, they hold up pretty well.

The Fog is much, much better than its abysmal remake from a couple of years ago and it holds its own as an enjoyable horror film. But, if you are really in the mood for malevolence hidden in condensed water vapor, you may want to watch The Mist (2007) instead. Just make sure you hide all objects with high suicide-usability in a different time zone.

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