John Carpenter’s The Fog opens with a quotation from a famous Edgar Allan Poe poem: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” A profound expression of Poe’s depression and alienation, the poem might on the surface seem better suited to Carpenter’s more ostentatiously reality-bending In the Mouth of Madness, where a man becomes quite literally lost in a horror writer’s work. But The Fog concerns a more insidious and subtle kind of fissure in reality: the myth of the formation of the United States. Like most ghost stories, the film is obsessed by the lies of society, and shows how such illusions can be swallowed up by the sins of the past.
The Fog opens on a close-up of a stopwatch being suddenly and decisively shut, as if its owner, Mr. Machen (John Houseman), is telling us to wake up. Yet this symbolism is complicated by the man’s subsequent actions. Presiding over an iconic-looking campfire, Mr. Machen tells rapt schoolchildren a story of how a trawler was engulfed in fog 100 years ago to the night, crashing into the shores of Antonio Bay after following a light source that was merely campfire. Rather than waking the children up, Mr. Machen is soothing them with a supernatural tale that’s leeched of political reverberations. Such a story fails to elucidate why the fog returns to Antonio Bay, filled with the ghosts of the trawler’s inhabitants, who are bent on exacting revenge.
The Fog was Carpenter’s theatrical follow-up to Halloween, a film which continues to be a phenomenon; as an unfortunate result, the former has often fallen through the cultural cracks to be regarded as something like a middle-tier project in the auteur’s filmography. Indeed, The Fog isn’t as splashy as Halloween, which delivers its scares with an escalating sense of menace that’s astonishing yet mechanical. Halloween‘s accomplished lateral tracking shots allow even lay audiences to become vicarious co-directors alongside Carpenter, inviting them to openly savor the film’s craftsmanship in a fashion that’s somewhat reminiscent of late-period Orson Welles productions, or of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. With The Fog, Carpenter deepened his technical virtuosity to the point of obliterating a notion of individual set pieces, favoring instead an enveloping tone and mood.
Here, Carpenter expands on the most evocative and under-acknowledged element of Halloween and horror films at large: their aura of loneliness and regret. The horror film doesn’t chiefly mine a fear of death, as critics often claim, but rather a more specific fear of dying alone. In Halloween, the babysitters suffering Michael Myers’s wrath are pointedly splintered apart, scattered across a small town which Carpenter films with a sense of isolation and under-population that’s reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s paintings. And The Fog is similarly structured, following strands of characters as they attempt to piece together the mystery of the dead people of the trawler, which bears only a superficial resemblance to the mythology that Mr. Machen peddles.
Halloween‘s greatest sequence is a montage late in the film, where Carpenter cuts to the houses that have served as the settings for Michael’s carnage. The pregnant emptiness of these homes is scarier than the slashing we’ve seen up to this point. And there’s a similar, even greater, sequence in The Fog, which appears near the beginning of the narrative—suggesting a direct continuation of Halloween‘s most emotionally robust formalism. Carpenter cuts between several buildings of Antonio Bay, as the fog begins to drift in and upset the town’s studied bonhomie. We see a man sweep up in a convenience store, as seen through two ceiling mirrors that suggest gleaming portals into darkness. Carpenter also lingers on empty phone booths ringing, glass breaking, objects crashing, and a sign hanging by its hinges. A television blares, a chair supernaturally moves, and a nozzle falls down, spewing gas onto the concrete floor of a gas station hub. Carpenter offers these images with a solemn, streetwise matter-of-factness, boiling small-town life down to a series of hard, concrete visual stanzas, while the sounds of these actions form a diegetic music that complements the mighty loneliness of his score. Throughout the film, we also hear horns and church bells, which suggest voices of the damned. And the dead aren’t the only damned entities of The Fog.
Antonio Bay, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its formation, the same anniversary as the death of the sailors of the fog, is built on a lie. Antonio Bay’s central church, now led by Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), deliberately led the lepers of the trawler to their deaths, so that the community could form a township with their money without having to bear their proximity. The modern residents of Antonio Bay seem to feel this original sin in their bones. Everyone in this film is lost and mournful; they could empathize acutely with the emotions expressed in Poe’s “Dream Within a Dream.” Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) is the owner of a lighthouse where she serves as a local DJ/newsperson, resisting direct interaction with everyone but her son. When a phone acquaintance asks her out on a date, she says that her idea of perfection is a voice on a phone. Nick (Tom Atkins) drives into town and picks up a hitchhiker named Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), who asks him if he’s weird. He replies that he is, and she thanks God for the relief from normalcy. They sleep together, though Carpenter doesn’t sentimentalize this action, rendering it instead as a passing of time between two self-aware drifters. There are dozens of such anecdotes in The Fog, which offers a study of a community engulfed by the fog of a mythology that masks cruelty.
The Fog is pivotal to the cementing of Carpenter’s aesthetic. The filmmaker’s long takes, and painterly compositions which often involve only a few astutely chosen objects of focus, fuse here with his synth score to forge a cinematic grammar that expresses isolation, longing, and humbling. When Stevie descends a long staircase toward her lighthouse, Carpenter pulls the camera up to show a beautiful, terrifyingly vast landscape that dwarfs her, revealing the majesty of the primordial coast. Such an image—of a human casually, unknowingly interacting with symbolic godliness—is worthy of the compositions of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. And the vengeful phantoms are similarly reduced by their surroundings, seen mostly as shadowy wisps of a silvery fog that swallows them up with nearly the same totality as their victims. This resonant compositional relationship between figures and landscapes would be refined in films such as The Thing, Christine, and They Live, cementing Carpenter’s legend as a master of despairing left-wing pulp. Ironically, this reputation reduces the artist. He’s a master, period—a genre poet as pop existentialist.