A casually tossed-off sentiment is tellingly expressed several times in the interviews included with this edition of The Fog. The sentiment pertains to the delayed success of director John Carpenter’s prior theatrical film, Halloween, which had only gradually come into its status as a smash—a detail that’s worth recalling for two reasons. There’s the nostalgic value of imagining a time when a film could still be a hit due to an audience’s active enjoyment of it, rather than as the result of a studio campaign that’s been plotted with militaristic precision. There’s also the value of context that may explain why The Fog struck audiences and critics as an anticlimactic follow-up to Halloween, which was in the process of reinvigorating an entire subgenre. As he began work on The Fog, Carpenter may have still been under the impression that Halloween didn’t yet require a major encore, as it was still one of several low-budget films he’d completed to cultish fanfare.
Or maybe the filmmaker was following the spartan Halloween with a deliberately even more modest endeavor. Any veteran collector of Carpenter interviews knows that the director is a cagey guardian of his own legend—a man who’s based not just his films, but his entire deliberately blunt interview tenor on the tone of the “man’s man” thematics of the work of often acknowledged heroes like Howard Hawks. Everything about Carpenter’s public visage is a deliberately worked-out throwback to the days when the myth of the gruff, plainspoken auteur prevailed in the American cinema.
The ultimate point here is that The Fog is one of those films that’s more likely to invite discussion of broader John Carpenter lore than of its decidedly less interesting particulars. It would be fun to assert the film as a neglected genre classic, but it’s really just an enjoyable ghost tale that consciously invites comparisons to campfire stories, EC Comics, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and, more obliquely, the films of Val Lewton. The Fog doesn’t transcend its pastiche roots in the manner of Carpenter’s earlier Assault on Precinct 13 or Halloween, however, as it’s almost entirely devoid of the sense of existential terror that those earlier films conjured with a discombobulating sense of assurance and immediacy.
The Fog has the simple problem of feeling inconsequential, as there’s never really anything at stake. Carpenter’s classic films have a ruthlessly contained precision, but much of The Fog’s running time is frittered away on various small-town subplots that are only marginally concerned with the menace of the approaching murderous apparitions. Carpenter and co-writer/producer Debra Hill eventually build to one of their trademark siege scenarios, but by that point there’s only 10 minutes of the film left, and much of that is devoted to a preacher played by Hal Holbrook, who is, regrettably, the silliest and dullest character.
The good news is that the film is still an aesthetic marvel, particularly for junkies of Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey’s gorgeous Scope compositions. The director has even more of a field day screwing with the audience’s foresight of the killings to come than he did in Halloween, and there are plenty of awesome shots, particularly of a pivotal lighthouse that’s seemingly in danger of being swallowed up by the surrounding land. Evocative and mysterious, the images hint at a remote loneliness that the filmmakers never manage to fully exploit. (Ti West, however, would explore that loneliness to more satisfying effect decades later with The Innkeepers.) Neither as exhilarating as his classics nor as fascinatingly misbegotten as his misfires, The Fog is middle-tier Carpenter, which is to say that it’s a stunning coffee-table book of moving images that’s perfect for playing on loop in the background at a sad Halloween party.
The image is unavoidably variable. There’s frequent softness, but that’s true to the look of the film, which is reflective of its low-budget roots. Scream Factory has treated The Fog with characteristic reverence, offering a transfer, supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey, that’s grain appropriate and rich in painterly color. The blacks aren’t as well-differentiated as they would be in a conventionally "pristine" transfer, which will sometimes give the viewer trouble deciphering action, but this isn’t a major problem. There are two sound tracks, a 5.1 mix to theoretically invest the sound editing with a depth and nuance not available to original viewers, as well as a 2.0 mix that’s more in keeping with the film’s audio origins. I couldn’t detect a major difference, as both are clean and robust without sounding overly produced.
The supplementals are compromised of a mixture of the old and new that should offer a little something for everyone. For the gossip-minded, there’s the new interview with Jamie Lee Curtis that’s surprisingly blunt about the awkwardness of working with John Carpenter, his ex-girlfriend Debra Hill, and his then-wife Adrienne Barbeau. (Curtis is also amusingly straightforward about her dislike of the movie.) The new audio commentary with Barbeau, actor Tom Atkins, and production designer Tommy Lee Wallace is also more geared toward personal, if lighter, anecdotes. Any veteran of Atkins’s commentaries knows that he’s a personable genre legend, and he doesn’t disappoint here, while Wallace, a key Carpenter collaborator, serves to ground this track in details of the methods of making the film. In contrast, Carpenter and Hill’s previously available commentary is drier and heavier on the nuts-and-bolts actions of making a movie, which should be of greater interest to blossoming directors and hardcore fans of their work. There’s a variety of other featurettes as well as outtakes, trailers, and a photo gallery. It’s a fun package.
In retrospect, The Fog is an enjoyable, somewhat forgettable warm-up for The Thing, John Carpenter’s masterpiece of isolated loneliness.