Saturday, October 8, 2011

Director's Spotlight #1.2: John Carpenter's The Fog

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. Up next, his 1980 film The Fog.

Grade: 69 (B)

After the success of Halloween, one of the most profitable independent films of all time, John Carpenter became one of the biggest names in horror right in the middle of the genre’s finest era (1968-1988 or so). But how to follow up the breakthrough horror film of the decade? To Carpenter’s credit, he chose not to repeat himself, but rather went with a moodier film with a more abstract villain. Or at least that’s what he did at first. Carpenter second-guessed himself and reshot a third of the film to add more visceral scares and gore. Carpenter claimed that he was dissatisfied with the results, but the fact that he and producer Debra Hill had to compete with the onslaught of more violent fare likely had something to do with his decision. The film starts off as an atmospheric creep-fest before devolving into a fairly standard horror film, and it’s impossible not to wonder whether or not Carpenter’s original vision might have made for a stronger, more conceptually coherent film.

A strange fog has swept over a seaside California town on the eve of its centennial, and with it comes some strange happenings. Telephone booths begin ringing together. Gas station pumps pour out fuel themselves. Lights flicker on and off. Car windows shatter. Clocks break. Objects move on their own. Late-night jazz DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) notices these odd goings-on and starts to worry after her son finds a piece of driftwood that might possess some odd powers. A free-spirited hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the local she shacks up with (Tom Atkins) find a missing boat with a dead fisherman (his two friends are missing). The local priest (Hal Holbrook) finds his great-grandfather’s journal after rock in the church’s wall inexplicably breaks off, revealing its hiding place. The book has the explanation for everything going on, but the mayor (Janet Leigh) and her assistant (Nancy Loomis) don’t like what it reveals about the town’s founding.

As with many ghost stories, the set-up is far less interesting than the pay-off. When it’s finally revealed what’s behind the fog…well, it’s more than a little silly. There’s no doubt that the reshoots forced the abstract ghost story into more literal territory that isn’t half as fascinating as the atmospheric sections of the film. Backstories in horror films are rarely interesting, which is why many of the best horror movies forego any explanations whatsoever. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining stripped away the exposition of Stephen King’s novel, resulting in an ambiguous masterpiece. Carpenter’s own Halloween chose not to explain why Michael Myers killed people, making him more of a force of nature than a person. Perhaps The Fog’s explanation would have been less goofy had Carpenter stuck to his guns. Whatever the case, the film’s final thirty minutes inevitably disappoint in their decision to literalize the villains.

But the film mostly works all the same. Carpenter sets the stage early on with a campfire ghost story told by John Houseman in a great cameo. The director cited various inspirations for the movie, but old-fashioned ghost stories are the clearest influence. Carpenter creates a fascinating cast of characters, this time choosing to make the film an ensemble piece. From Barbeau’s smooth-until-threatened DJ to Leigh’s hitchhiker (far less shy and self-conscious than her character from Halloween), the film allows the viewer meet some of the more interesting residents in its trip through the town. Carpenter also proves himself a master of visual storytelling again with The Fog. Shot in gorgeous widescreen, the film captures the seaside town as an idyllic location, and as with Halloween, there’s a terrible secret lurking underneath the beautiful surfaces, manifesting itself in this case as a ghostly fog. The film recalls Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (with its location and a menacing force of nature as an antagonist) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with the bizarre phenomena), and in some way predicts the Spielberg/Tobe Hooper project Poltergeist. The comparison is an interesting one: the seemingly divergent filmmakers share a few common traits: strong craftsmanship, love for Old Hollywood, and the exploration of what happens when small towns meet strange forces or, in this case, have them underneath their surface all along.

Updated Director’s Spotlight Schedule:

October 15: John Carpenter’s The Thing
October 22: John Carpenter’s Christine
October 29: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness
Extra innings: John Carpenter’s The Ward

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