❉ 1980 John Carpenter classic returns to cinema screens and home entertainment newly restored and looking better than ever.
It’s a good time to be a John Carpenter fan. I mean it’s always a good time to be a John Carpenter fan but with his current tour reminding us of his ever influential electronic scores and just as impressive original Lost Themes albums, the recent release of David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s reverential sequel to his own game changing Halloween and the restored 4K Blu-ray and cinema releases of four of his most fondly remembered classics, this moment in time is a really, really good time to be a fan of the bearded wizard of genre cinema.
Has there been any other genre director who has had such an unparalleled run of major and minor classics? From 1974’s Dark Star to 1989’s insanely prescient They Live, Carpenter crafted a series of films that contain themes, both political and personal, whip smart scripts and iconic image after iconic image; think the spider-head making its grotesque escape in The Thing, Michael Myers’ invasion of suburbia encapsulated in the single shot of him standing by a hedge in broad daylight, the wraith-like image of Christine, a demonically possessed ’58 Plymouth Fury engulfed in flames yet still carrying on her pursuit of the greasy thug Buddy Repperton down a midnight road and homeless plaid shirt and sunglasses wearing John Nada toting a pump action shotgun declaring to a bunch of capitalist aliens his intentions of simultaneously chewing bubblegum and kicking ass.
Added to these, and the many others I will get into in future reviews, you can count the image of a bunch of glowing eyed, long dead sailors stalking amongst the pews of a mist covered church looking for compensation in blood and gold. The Fog, Carpenter’s 1980 ghost story was his choice to follow Halloween, a film which for years would influence horror cinema in the glut of slasher flicks that would dominate the genre with mixed results over the best part of the rest of the decade. To concentrate his efforts on a ghost story with classical overtones instead of the guaranteed pay cheque and box office profits that Halloween II would have brought his way demonstrates the independent streak that would guide Carpenter through his writing and directing career. It was a brave choice and a mostly successful one. The Fog lacks the propulsive narrative drive and finely etched characters that Halloween and its own predecessor Assault On Precinct 13 had in spades. What it does have however is an atmosphere that dozens of other horror films have tried to replicate to varying degrees of failure, including its own dismal 2005 remake.
Telling the tale of the centennial anniversary of the small Californian coastal town Antonio Bay and the supernatural invasion that brings up the town’s own blood-soaked secrets The Fog sets up its stall neatly from the beginning with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe; “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” This love for gothic horror is immediately followed up by the expert casting of John Houseman as Mr. Machen, named after the 19th century Welsh horror author Arthur Machen and only one of the several name drops of horror authors and their creations that Carpenter would sprinkle through his work over the years. Gathered on a beach in the middle of the night with a bunch of rapt children Mr. Machen sets the scene and backstory for the film by campfire with the ghostly history of doomed sailors who met their doom amongst a thick fog that brought about their waterlogged demise one hundred years before.
Over the next hour and a half, a large cast of characters, including Jamie Lee Curtis as a hitch-hiker who hooks up with Nick, played by Tom Atkins. Curtis’s real-life mother, Janet Leigh plays Kathy who is in charge of the towns centennial celebrations with the help of the booze soaked Father Malone, the always great Hal Holbrook, who has recently discovered his own grandfather’s journal which reveals the truth of the sailors fate. Hovering amongst this near Altmanesque sprawl of characters is radio DJ Stevie Wayne, Adrienne Barbeau, who soon encounters the unnatural weather system and the terrors it contains within. The script struggles hard to connect all these characters together satisfyingly, something Carpenter confesses to on one of the many featurettes contained on the beautifully presented special edition blu-ray when he remarks how poor the first edit of the film was.
However, it’s the aforementioned atmosphere that he conjures with ease that dominates the proceedings. The 4K restoration beautifully demonstrates this and shows Carpenter’s masterful use of the frame and composition, aided by the great director of photography Dean Cundey. His knack for displaying action in the background versus the unknowing protagonists dominating the frames foreground beautifully displays a number of scares and shocks that still manage to elicit a jump in the viewer more elegantly and without any of the obnoxiousness that many of the present day’s “quiet, quiet, BANG!” type of horror films trade in to lesser and lesser effect. When it was at its best, which was quite often, Carpenter’s work only shows its age in the hairstyles of its characters. In every other aspect his vast number of skills are on constant display. Skills which many genre directors are still trying to copy and mine to this day. None though have come close and it is doubtful they ever will.
The opportunity to experience these frights, as well as all the other facets of Carpenter’s sleek vision, alongside those of the also remastered Escape From New York, the underrated Prince Of Darkness and They Live on the big screen is an all too rare one that should be grabbed with both hands by devotees of classic genre cinema.
❉ ‘The Fog’ 4K Restoration: Theatrical release from 26 October with special Halloween screenings 31 October. HE Release including 4-disc Collector’s Edition: 29 October.
❉ Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.