I first saw John Carpenter’s cosmic body horror The Thing in the midnight slot at The Prytania. I loved the film, but struggled to stay awake during the final third, fighting a losing battle against its low-key, matter-of-fact tone and unrushed pacing. A few years later, I’m a few years older and struggled to stay awake at a 7pm screening of John Carpenter’s The Fog at The Broad. I appreciated the opportunity to see a proper projection of a beloved genre classic, but that novelty wasn’t enough to keep my eyes from being magnetically drawn to the top of my skull. Immediately after my screening of The Fog, I biked home to rent the film VOD and rewatch the last half-hour to make sure I didn’t take a “long blink” through anything vital. I did the same the morning after that midnight screening of The Thing in 2015, “re”watching the back half of the film over a cup of coffee.
I don’t believe the drowsiness of The Fog‘s mood & pacing is a detriment, no more than I believe The Thing is anything less than a 5-star classic. The Fog just happens to be one of those low-budget horrors that’s so moody & dreamlike that it leaves you both riveted and halfway asleep – joining the likes of Carnival of Souls, Messiah of Evil, and its seaside sister film The Living Skeleton. The prologue is a campfire horror story about a drowned ship’s crew who haunt the land as ghosts, proving ahead of time that you can condense this 90min film’s plot into just 5 minutes of dialogue. So, what does Carpenter fill the other 85 minutes of dead air with? As the children would say, just vibes. The titular fog is a glowing, sentient force of nature that slowly creeps onto the screen, inviting some glowing-eyed ghost friends along for the ride. It is the most literal interpretation of “atmospheric horror” around, surviving on pure mood and eerie weather until supernatural mayhem is unleashed in the go-for-broke finale . . . if you’re awake to witness it.
Most of what makes this film of interest to modern audiences is its horror icon bonafides. Carpenter may be working on a scrappy budget here, but he puts his glowing-eyed monsters to a much more ambitious, ethereal effect than their subterranean brethren in C.H.U.D.. That’s why he’s the best. Give the man a kitchen knife & a store-bought William Shatner mask, and he’ll inspire decades of copycats in a subgenre of its own. The Fog never really took off in the same way as Halloween, but there are plenty of Carpenter regulars around to give it a similar classic-horror pedigree: producer Debra Hill, scream queen Jamie Leigh Curtis, her screamier-queenier mother Janet Leigh, town drunk Tom Atkins, etc. Adrienne Barbeau is a particular highlight among those collaborators, playing the coolest local radio D.J. around, talking her small seaside town through the ghastliest night of their lives in the smoothest tones possible.
The Fog is far from Carpenter’s flashiest work. It doesn’t have the impossible body contortions of The Thing, the pro-wrestling caricatures of They Live, nor the psychedelic rug-pulls of In the Mouth of Madness. Besides the icy synths of Carpenter’s score and the calming, laid-back cool of Barbeau’s performance, there isn’t much to recommend here as the artistic pinnacle of anyone’s career. It’s got plenty mood & craftiness to spare, though, achieving a wonderfully vivid nightmare vibe on a community theatre budget. Even if you stay awake & alert the entire runtime, it’s easy to question whether you slipped into a dream halfway through.