Reviewed by Sam Hatch
As a young boy of far too few years to be safely exposed to the psyche-scarring nature of horror movies, I was casually introduced (by unnamed parties) to many of the cuddliest kiddie flicks of the seventies. No, not Pete's Dragon, Freaky Friday or the Apple Dumpling Gang movies. No, I'm talking about such child friendly classics as Don Coscarelli's Phantasm and a little John Carpenter nasty called Halloween. Granted, most of these movies were only glimpsed through the spaces between my fingers as I cowered behind my hands. But the fascination was there, and in time I remember being intrigued by yet another Carpenter film, 1980's The Fog. Too young to be entranced by the… ahem, ‘talents' of Adrienne Barbeau, the big draw for me was the mystery and the whole pirate ghost thing. I remember reading a piece on the film in either Fangoria or Starlog and seeing a gory still shot of one the fog's victims on the boat Seagrass. And I knew that a movie with such great looking dessicated corpses had to be a class act.
But alas, I was only allowed to be scarred for life by films on video, and apparently wasn't ripe enough to be taken to the theaters for such trauma. And so it was that I had to stay home while other members of the family went to see The Fog during its opening weekend. When they finally returned I was leaping around like a hungry wolverine demanding to know one thing – “How was it?” But the response I received just didn't compute. One of the teenagers who attended the screening simply shrugged his shoulders and said it was okay. Okay? How can a Pirate Ghost (or Leper Ghost to be precise) movie be merely okay? He went on to explain that it wasn't very scary and was overall rather mediocre. I didn't believe him, and quietly awaited the day when I could finally watch The Fog for myself.
That time finally came in the early nineties, when I eventually got around to renting it during October for a spooky Halloweentime marathon. In truth, it is slightly mediocre. Not as good as Halloween or Carpenter's remake of The Thing, the original Fog is a really great idea that somehow never comes off in the execution. The opening is fantastic, in which a creepy John Houseman tells us the basic backstory as a campfire ghost story, scaring the hell out of a bunch of kids on the beach. We learn that the shipwreck of the Elizabeth Dane occurred when a group of sailors mistook a large campfire for a lighthouse beacon, and that they still return from the other side of the grave once in a while to wreak havoc and exact revenge. The rest of the movie is skeleton-thin, as we follow the exploits of some randomly collected characters once the fog rolls in and the town of Antonio Bay is assaulted by the undead. Or more accurately, as the town is mildly annoyed by the undead.
And for some unholy reason it has come to be that the tale must be told again. Horror remake fever is upon us, and the focus is clearly divided between relensing Asian films and classic American horror flicks from the seventies. As someone who grew up in the seventies, I can assure you that the decade was scary enough on its own without walking corpses, so even the bad horror films of the era seem frightening to me. And somehow the remakes never even come close to working. The newest Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one I never happened upon, but the recent Amityville Horror rehash certainly failed spectacularly. And now with remakes of Evil Dead and who knows what else coming around the bend, why not hit up some classic John Carpenter material?
Carpenter himself was no stranger to the horror remake. He loved Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World so much that he dropped copious moments of it into his own film Halloween. He eventually took a crack at reimagining the film himself in the early eighties, creating not only one of the best horror films of all time, but also one of the best remakes of all time. It's only fitting that his material has come up for grabs, and this year has already seen one other Carpenter redux – Assault on Precinct Thirteen. I really liked what was done with that one, but I didn't know what to expect from The Fog.
Luckily, a little more time was spent behind the keyboard for the 2005 version, and with Cooper Layne's script the characters finally come together as something more than mere meat puppets awaiting their demise. Once again the town (now Antonio Island - though the local radio station's call letters are still KAB instead of KAI) is celebrating its centennial, but more attention is now paid to the four founding fathers who may or may not have had a hand in the awful shipwreck that happened right before the town evolved into a prosperous venture. And this time around the various characters terrorized by the mist-dwelling specters are revealed to be the descendants of those four men.
Stevie Wayne, the sultry-voiced deejay played by Adrienne Barbeau in the original is now portrayed by Hellboy's Selma Blair. She's still a single mother working as a lighthouse operator/on air personality, so not much has changed on the surface. Still, there now exists a connection between her and another of the local descendants of the foul four – Smallville's Tom Welling as Nick Castle (his name is a nod to one of John Carpenter's frequent collaborators, the man who played The Shape in the first Halloween) is a young, lonely (e.g. horny) man running an inherited boating business with his friend Spooner (DeRay Davis, flirting with stereotypes no thanks to some script clumsiness that sees him doing nothing but spouting groaning one liners). Tom is a local boy who loves his life, but is forced to seek the arms of Ms. Wayne while his longtime girlfriend is out of town.
Said girlfriend is yet another town descendant named Elizabeth Williams, played by Lost's Maggie Grace. Something about the island has always bothered her, and caused her to leave her true love and obnoxious mother behind to seek out the good life elsewhere. Until the town centennial nears, when strange visions and disturbing dreams have been haunting her enough to force her to return home for the first time in aeons. In a scene that references the original film (Jamie Lee Curtis played a slutty hitchhiker picked up by Carpenter regular Tom Atkins, only to linger around the rest of the movie conveniently), Nick pulls over to pick up a random hitchhiking girl before realizing it's his Elizabeth. Awkward moments ensue, as Nick must decide if his womanizing is more important to him than loyalty and respect and all that sorta stuff.
And finally the ghosts arrive, though in this version the primary supernatural power they possess is the gift of throwing people around. No possesson, no disemboweling, just flinging folks hither and thither. The first hurling victims are onboard Tom's ship the Seagrass, as Spooner and a coworker entertain a duo of scantily clad females in an overlong, wannabe Girls Gone Wild segment. Soon the fog rolls in, as does the shadowy image of a looming wooden sailing vessel. Events unfold in a much less spooky way than in the original, but after the Seagrass attack the film picks up a bit of steam. Nick and Elizabeth are soon forced into clearing Spooner's name, since the local police want to finger him for much wrongdoing.
A mysterious diary enters into play, as do a number of trinkets from the shipwreck that begin washing up ashore. One finds its way into the hands of Stevie's son, and an ancient watch falls into the hands of Rade Serbedzija's beachcomber/drifter (perhaps the same character he played in Batman Begins? I couldn't tell if he was still wearing Bruce Wayne's old coat), who finds it necessary to show this newfound booty to Elizabeth. Luckily, she knows everything about pocket watch hallmarks (her mother is a local master of antiquities, and has apparently handed down some of her knowledge, if not any of her love) and finds another mysterious avenue of historical research to pursue.
And it's this portion of the story that trumps the original with a decently thought out story, with relatively real characters who have intriguing connections to one another. One thing the original had that this one doesn't is the music. John Carpenter was able to take the synthesizer (the crutch of many a low budget horror production) and do what nobody else seems to know how to do – create some of the simplest, yet creepiest pieces of music ever heard by human ears. Carpenter can score panning shots of supermarket aisles and still make you piss yourself in fear. Graeme Revell provides adequate 'scary' music, but his orchestra can't hold a candle to Carpenter's Casio genius. The one great idea he introduces is to give the fog itself a sonic characteristic.
In regards to the special effects, I was worried that this would turn into a overloaded computer graphics yawnfest, but much of the early digital work involves subtly creepy stuff like wet, black footprints appearing where they shouldn't. For much of the film, the ghosts arrive as shadowy patterns lingering in the mist, and that's a good thing. When they do take form in the final act, the effects seem to have in mind the work on display in Pirates of the Caribbean, with their flesh fading in and out of sight periodically. The ‘spiritual' effects toward the end of the third act aren't necessarily scary, but are nevertheless visually inventive and work well. No Boogeyman CGI atrocities here.
And that last act does unfold in a very different fashion from that of the 1980 film. With richer characters, we're thereby allowed more revelations, and the fate of one central character comes into play. It's at this juncture that the film has the potential to veer down Hollywood Cheese Boulevard or attempt something different and take a few risks. I'm happy to report that all parties involved chose the second option, and went for a surprisingly satisfactory ending (i.e. not entirely uplifiting).
I should also give thanks to the directorial work of Rupert Wainright, whose previous film Stigmata tried too hard to make up for a lack of scary story material with an ‘MTV-on-crack' shooting style. This time he really seems to be trying to hold back to allow the story to unfold in a very slow, seventies style. Modern horror directors seem to have forgotten that a slow pace can also mean a building of dread. When hack filmmakers try to scare the audience with jump cuts and loud noises a la the new Amityville Horror, they cross the line and simply become annoying. Not to say that the soundwork in The Fog is entirely innocent. Oftentimes ghosts announce their prescence with four loud raps that erupt from relative silence. But gimmicks like this can be welcome if implemented with purpose, as they're done in this film.
If you could meld both versions of The Fog, you might have one satisfying horror film. On their own, they're both flawed but not without merit. This one definitely shoots toward the top of the list of horror films this year. Of course that may not be saying a hell of a lot with some of the competition we've seen so far, but kudos to bringing back a bit of the classic 70's American horror feel without bogging it down with excessive editing and Limp Bizkit songs. This Fog is murky, but there may be shiny trinkets in there if you look hard enough.