Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Friday, October 08, 2010

Keep watching THE FOG (1980)


THE FOG's location setting of Antonio Bay is right up there with Bodega Bay (of THE BIRDS, top, 2nd down) as an example of the Northern California coastline providing the ideal setting for mass non-human invasion. Elements of Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963) refract all through THE FOG: the unmanned pump leaking gas into the street, the collecting of survivors in a local tavern, and the matriarchal infrastructure that dominates the main characters (Bodega Bay is even referenced in the dialogue; and several of the scenes are filmed in the same wharf).

Note the resemblance between the respective shot of Suzanne Pleshette and Adrienne Barbeau above! (I'm so madly in love with that dark hair, dark red color combination) and the weird fissures of inter-relationship twixt the two films: Hitchcock's PSYCHO star Janet Leigh as the the mayor of Antonio Bay, mirroring Jessica Tandy as the queen bee in THE BIRDS; Nancy Loomis as the mayor's perky sarcastic assistant mirrors Veronica Cartwright as the little Brenner girl. Leigh's real-life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis is the visitor/interloper who seems to bring the destruction with her, ala Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren). But none of these similarities draw attention to themselves the way a Brian De Palma film would. It's subtle.


Even without birds or avenging ghosts, Northern California's coastline highway is the perfect setting for a spooky story -- each little town isolated connected only by a small, winding road and shrouded in the mist and dark against windswept rocks looking out to a spooky, uninviting Pacific. With a simple, ominous synthesizer refrain, Carpenter makes an empty beach in daytime into something genuinely eerie. He knows when something's spooky enough on its own, when less is more - and to create a feeling of forlorn dread rolling slowly in from the sea all he needs a note or two on the synthesizer and a row of fog horns along a deserted beach. All the protagonists are hip enough, for the most part, to know when to just run rather than say stupid things like: "You stay here, I'm going to go check out that noise." Or "it must have been your imagination," even as half the people they know have been murdered in the same week. They don't have to yell at each other how this stuff "can't be happening." They just accept the weirdness as a given. It was the 1970s after all, and Northern California. If the weirdness is to be accepted anywhere, it's there, then... when things had a chance to be weird and casual right there even in the small fishing villages.

John Houseman in a seafaring cap, for example, opens the film telling campfire ghost story to a group of children, suffusing the tale with concise solemnity ala his work in THE PAPER CHASE; the camera pans up from the fire to the sea behind them and onward into the coolest credit sequence in horror film history: no music except the jazz on the radio, just weird sound effects and strange electrical shit happening all over the town between midnight and one o-clock; Adrienne Barbeau's husky DJ voice coming through the fog, the warm glow of radios mysteriously humming to life: "It's Stevie Wayne and I'll be keeping you warm through the midnight hour," playing vintage (i.e. royalty free library jazz) music.... oh my yeah.

Meanwhile, Carpenter's camera plays off the POV ideas in HALLOWEEN, but much more mysteriously. We don't know who in the story-- if anyone-- is 'seeing' what we are seeing: deserted stretches of town at night, souvenir shot glasses and key chains rumbling in the gas station convenience store; mysterious knocks at the doors of sleeping people who get up to answer as the fog rolls up; all between the hour of 12 and one AM... music rising warm and eerie from the turned-on radios, Stevie's sexy rasp-- the counter-irritant to the feeling of menace--carrying its cozy benevolent charge -- who is she talking to, if the radio is on and no one is listening? Soothing and maternally sexy as she may sound, Wayne's voice floating around with no one to hear carries a charge of ghostly Lynchian-style "no hay banda" audio mimesis.

The movie is ample proof that everything you need to make a horror movie is right there, in the dark. Like Val Lewton, Carpenter knows how to use the night and shadow. If you've ever been outside alone in the dark, on mischief night with a few friends, dressed all in black, armed with toilet paper and soap, hiding and still and alert behind shrubbery as a friend runs up and rings the doorbell then runs off, like your ears and eyes are plugged into the night itself, then you might get as I did a shiver of uncanny Halloween recognition:


Horror iconography is a fickle and strange mistress. Some little motifs get picked up and used ad nauseum and Carpenter invented a lot of them: the killer who falls but isn't dead, the slow thump thump of a knock at the door, the killer's face in the window when the person's not looking, but luckily Carpenter's an inventor not a follower, and his inspired use of a sexy husky voiced female DJ alone in a lighthouse broadcasting booth, looking out over the water and having an on-air freakout about the glowing fog moving in and pleading for someone to rescue her son "trapped in the fog" is totally inspired and hasn't really been turned into a cliche by lesser hands in the years that followed, so it still has a creepy cool charge all its own.  Barbeau's DJ mom has roots in the lighthouse keepers of horror past, such as in the famous Arch Obler Lights Out radio show, "Three Skeleton Key," or the two salts ("What I love are the ballads") in BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, but the update of making the lighthouse keeper a sexy single parent DJ from Chicago, moving out there to get free of the grind and a lousy husband, breaks free from convention. She's tough, but alone, and when she coos into the night "It's 12:43 and I got four in a row for ya, right here on KBB," you feel both comforted by her voice and worried for her soft flesh aglow in blue soundboard reflections, alone up against the sea like the last bastion of humanity; the drowsy generic soft jazz she plays perfect background music, just soothing enough to almost dispel the boogeymen, but impossible to lose yourself, to escape in.

In Carpenter's hands, a shot of a kid running along a deserted beach with just howling wind and surf on the soundtrack is suddenly very scary and forlorn. Or my favorite shot is a long shot of Barbeau walking down a set of winding steps to the sea in early afternoon, preparing to DJ all alone in her lighthouse, isolated, yet strangely protected by the power of magnetic tape. It's one of my favorite scenes in the film and nothing happens: no music, just the sound of the wind and her tape of radio tags, "This is KBB, your voice for Antonio Bay!" over and over, in different vocal styles with different music coming out of her portable tape recorder. Barbeau even makes being a mom driving to work in an bright orange Kubelwagen with big hair and big sunglasses seem cool. She's her own girl, no mix of cliche'd mom SUV stuff, or hot Jaguar-driving cougar stuff, just Adrienne... It took me many viewings to even notice details like the way the driftwood switches from saying "Dane" to "6 must die" when it catches fire and then changes back, or the way Jamie Lee brings her beer with her when they head out to the truck.

Mrs. Korbitz: 
So... are you going to give the benediction?
Father
 Antonio Bay was built on murder!!
Sandy (dryly)
"Is that a no?"

Even though it crosscuts constantly between its major players--the priest, Mrs. Kobritz and Sandy, and manly boat owner Nick (Tom Atkins) and Elizabeth, the pretty hitchhiker he picks up (Jamie Lee Curtis)--THE FOG never feels confusing or cheap. Endless cutting from one scene to another can become an excuse to mask mismatched shots for lesser directors, and this approach undermines a lot of today's horror films (WRONG TURN comes to mind) but in Carpenter's hands, the cross-cutting actually heightens suspense as it stretches time out, and yet keep minute-by-minute account of the hours after midnight. Like HALLOWEEN, the film unfolds in almost slower-than-real time, as in we don't lose events, so five minutes of elapsed mise-en-scene time, cutting back and forth between three different scenes/characters would take closer to 15 minutes, rather than five or less, if that makes sense, and it shouldn't, but it works. That's Carpenter's genius...

I love that Nick picks up Elizabeth--a total stranger--and she looks at him strangely, as if uncertain whether he's a serial killer, not helped perhaps by the fact that he's drinking a beer while driving (gasp!) oh wait this is still the 1970s:

Nick: 
Want a sip?(offers beer)
Elizabeth:  
(suspiciously)
Can I ask you a question... Are you weird?
Nick:
(pausing to think over the question
Yes... (nods) yes I am weird.
Elizabeth  (relaxing)
Oh, thank God! (takes swig of beer)


 The next scene of them they're in bed having already presumably had sex, and he's looking over her sketchbook. That's so hot!! They barely know each other but hey, what is there to know? It's 1979 and they're cool Californians and he seems older than her but hey, old enough to not be a dick about things. By the time of the 21st century remake, every single adult in the film will have long been weeded out, so instead of thirtysomethings who are happy to have a 20 year-old hitchiker spend a few days with them, like Nick we have WB pretty boys who wouldn't know a girl's sketchbook from a hole in the head, or an honest day's work, and are too busy gelling their hair and sulking to be anything but a brooding soapy snot.

Like the westerns of Hawks, you don't notice how great the FOG, how perfect, noble, witty, and durable it is, is until enough repeat viewings bring out its finer subtleties, while at the same time it never feels like it's trying to be much good at all. It's just trying to be a decent horror movie to take your date to on a Saturday night. Maybe that's the secret to its glory: in not trying to be art it's allowed to rock. In not trying to rock, it's allowed to be sexy. In not trying to be sexy it's allowed to breathe. In being allowed to breathe it becomes genuinely scary on a ghost story spookshow level... in not trying to be anything but a campfire ghost yarn, it becomes everything we love about the movies.

5 comments:

  1. A great piece on a great, spooky classic.

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  2. "Like the westerns of Hawks, you don't notice how great the FOG is until enough repeat viewings bring out its finer subtleties"

    Agreed! I remember not being taken with this film the first time I saw it on VHS back in the 1980s. It took many years until I finally picked up a copy on DVD for me to realize how good this film is. The slow burn pacing, the creepy atmospheric vibe that Carpenter est. with Dean Cundey's brilliant camerawork... It all just works so well.

    Thanks for contributing to my JC Week with this post that really nails why I like this film so damn much. Also, I had never thought of the parallels to Hitch's THE BIRDS but it seems so obvious now! wow...

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  3. One great review, Erich. And an inspired comparison with Hitchcock's THE BIRDS! The NoCal locations and coastline certainly add something quite distinctive to both films. If you've ever driven that coast highway up North (says the SoCal native), you'll understand quickly the area's rugged beauty... and know absolute fear. Portions of that route face up next to some sheer drops (with no guard rails, IIRC). I love THE FOG, and was lucky enough (or is it old enough?) to see this when it was first out in '80. It's good to see it's still drawing folk in by that coastal light. Thanks for this.

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  4. You just bottled it. I'm on my way to a screening of "The Fog" in Orlando right now...Carpenter will be there tomorrow. You just did a fine job of ratcheting up the enthusiasm. Excellent.

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  5. A few days late, but just wanna say thanks for some great writing on this one; so much to love about "The Fog", reading this makes me want to quit the dayjob and go home and watch it on repeat.

    Oddly, I've never really clocked the similarity to "The Birds", despite the fact that it's... kinda obvious, now I think about it.

    That shot comparison at the start of your post is fucking uncanny, but as you say, subtle to the n-th degree... so easy to pay homage to Hitchcock in corny, overblown fashion in a horror movie, but only someone who knew both films inside out could pick up on details like this one.

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