This awesome horror movie still has chops (no pun intended) even after nearly four decades. I first presented this post in 2015.
To be clear, I’m talking about John Carpenter’s 1980 version of The Fog, not the reboot in 2005, which—despite Carpenter’s involvement as a producer—did not nearly measure up to the original. Fresh off his success with Halloween in 1978, Carpenter brought its star, Jamie Lee Curtis, to perform as part of an ensemble cast in this eerie, atmospheric film.
Working with a tight budget of $1 million (Hollywood chump change), Carpenter brought the movie in below that figure. But in viewing a rough cut, he concluded that The Fog sucked. So he added scenes, reshot others, and still managed to bring it in at just a tad over budget. The end result was a film that, years later, he would refer to as “a minor horror classic.” It being one of my all-time favorites, I wholeheartedly agree.
THE LEGEND OF THE ELIZABETH DANE
The coastal town of Antonio Bay, California is about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. At a few minutes before midnight, old Mr. Machen (John Houseman) is telling stories to a group of young campers. A century earlier, he says, a clipper ship called the Elizabeth Dane, sailing in a dense fog, followed a false warning fire on shore and broke up on some rocks. The ship sank, and all hands were lost.
Naturally, the clock strikes midnight as the old man finishes his story, and all around town, paranormal activities begin. Windows shatter, car horns blare, TVs turn on, dogs go crazy, and out at the old church, town priest Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), who is also the town drunk, is nearly struck by a chunk of masonry that has shaken loose from a wall. He finds a journal written by his grandfather, also a priest and a founding father of Antonio Bay. Its last entries stun him.
Seems that a century ago a wealthy man named Blake, who happened to be a leper, made a deal with the handful of people living in the tiny settlement to buy a piece of land nearby and establish a leper colony. Blake left to bring his people there by sea, but before he returned, the six leaders of the settlement, not wanting lepers in their midst, hatched a plan. They lit the fire that lured the fog-bound Elizabeth Dane onto the rocks, and afterward they retrieved Blake’s gold and used it to establish the town of Antonio Bay, the church being among the first buildings.
WHAT IS IN THE FOG?
Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) is the owner and sole employee of KAB radio, broadcasting from a lighthouse atop a cliff overlooking Antonio Bay. She observes a strange glowing fog out at sea, which appears to move against the wind. At the same time a fishing boat is reported overdue.
Aboard the boat, its three crewmen are drinking heavily as they make ready to head into port. The fog engulfs them, and they are stunned to see an old clipper ship sail past. A minute later they are attacked and killed by ghostly, seaweed-dripping figures.
Driving home late that night, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) picks up a hitchhiker named Elizabeth (Curtis). Minutes later every window in his pickup inexplicably shatters. Even so, the pair winds up in Nick’s bed, and soon the fog rolls in around his house. Someone (-thing?) pounds on his door, and as he goes to answer it at one a.m., Stevie Wayne signs off the air on his radio. When Nick opens the door, no one is there. The “witching hour” has passed.
A WARNING FROM THE DEAD
The next morning Stevie’s son Andy finds a piece of driftwood on the beach with the word DANE carved into it. Curious, Stevie takes it along with her to the lighthouse/radio station. As she listens to promo tapes, the wood begins dripping water and appears to short out the tape player. An eerie voice from the tape player then threatens revenge, and at the same time the word DANE on the wood is replaced by a message: 6 MUST DIE. The wood then bursts into flames, and when Stevie extinguishes the fire, everything is back to the way it was.
Nick, worried about his friends on the missing boat, rides out with Elizabeth. They find the body of only one: Dick Baxter, his eyes gouged out, his lungs filled with water, his decomposed body indicative of someone who has been underwater for months, according to Nick’s doctor friend. As the two men talk in the hallway of the doctor’s office, Baxter’s corpse rises off a gurney and, scalpel in hand, approaches the unsuspecting Elizabeth. (Seriously creepy scene!) He collapses just before reaching her.
CELEBRATING A TRAVESTY
The centennial celebration for Antonio Bay, organized by a woman named Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh, a scream queen long before her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, was so anointed), goes off as planned. At the same time a guy at the local weather station calls Stevie to report that a large, glowing fog bank is headed for town. In fact, he says, it is right outside his door. Stevie warns him not to open the door, but he does anyway, and she is horrified to hear him murdered over the phone.
Stevie broadcasts a message for the town sheriff to call her, but before they connect, the fog takes out the phone and power lines and is now headed for her oceanfront home, where Andy is being watched by a babysitter. Using a generator, the panicked Stevie screams for Andy to get out of the house, hoping that he’s listening on a portable radio. Nick and Elizabeth hear her and speed toward the house. The fog engulfs the place, and the ghosts kill the sitter, but Nick manages to save Andy.
AN OLD DEBT REPAID
Spoiler alert: Stevie continues to broadcast her warning to the town, reporting the progress of the fog, which seems to be almost everywhere—all of this accompanied by a pulsating John Carpenter soundtrack. She advises people to head for the old church, which so far has been spared. But now the fog reaches the lighthouse, and Stevie is menaced by a number of the ghostly lepers.
Nick, Elizabeth, and Andy show up at the church, as do Kathy Williams and her assistant (finally, mom and daughter have a scene together). Father Malone, in his cups as usual, helps them find a huge, solid gold crucifix, manufactured from some of Blake’s gold. As Blake and the ghosts attack, Father Malone, knowing that five people have died so far, offers himself up to Blake as the sixth victim—a true descendant of one of the original conspirators. He holds out the crucifix, which Blake seizes. There is a flash of light, and the ghosts vanish, both in the church and atop the lighthouse, where Stevie was moments from death. The fog drifts back to sea.
End of story, right? Heck no. Later that night, as Father Malone wonders why the ghosts did not take him, they all reappear, and the sight of Blake causes the priest to…well, lose his head.
I said earlier that I agree with John Carpenter’s assessment of The Fog being “a minor horror classic.” But truth be told, I’d take it up a few notches from “minor”.