It's five minutes to midnight... there's still time for one more story. What about the one where a whole community was menaced by something strange that rolled in from far out on the ocean? The small seaside town of Antonio Bay was celebrating its centenary, but at the stroke of midnight on that fateful day, strange things start to happen, like car alarms going off or clocks stopping - even windows shattering for no apparent reason. And as the day draws on, a bank of glowing fog creeps in from the sea, spelling doom for the town's inhabitants...
Nothing to do with the James Herbert novel of a few years previous which featured a toxic airborne event borne of a leak at a top secret testing facility that turned everyone murderous, the 1980 The Fog was written by director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill. Basically a zombie movie dressed up as a ghost story of the sort that Carpenter admired as a fan of classic horror literature, it features the return of a long dead leper colony whose ship was guided to destruction on the rocks off the coast of Antonio Bay - they are now looking for revenge on the descendants of the townsfolk who sent them to their death.
After revitalising genres in the late nineteen-seventies with groundbreaking slasher Halloween, and before that wacky science fictionDark Star and siege thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (which was not dissimilar to The Fog in places), Carpenter's next film may have looked like a disappointment, even ordinary, compared to those previous heights. It takes a long time for anything much to happen, and you find yourself way ahead of the characters as far as the story goes, especially local minister Hal Holbrook who pores through old documents assembling the backstory, though you could argue you don't settle down with a chiller called The Fog without being at least halfway aware of what you were letting yourself in for.
If the plot is unimaginative, even surprisingly basic verging on the hokey, compensation can be found in the handling. The eerie atmosphere is nicely sustained, what with that fog rolling off the ocean into the town in menacing fashion (the budget for dry ice must have been astronomical), carrying the undead armed with hooks, swords and scythes, though we never get a good look at them otherwise, a neat touch of visual mystery. Dean Cundey's photography was superb, one of his finest exercises with picturesque, windswept landscapes bordering the coastline and deep shadows for the villains to emerge from creating a sense of a chilly smalltown under threat from something that genuinely feels beyond the limits of their control.
Carpenter cuts skillfully between his dependable cast, although Adrienne Barbeau, supposedly the star, doesn't do much but sit on her lonesome in her lighthouse radio station while broadcasting warnings - it's everyone else who does the hard work of figuring out how to beat the supernatural attackers. And why isn't she wearing headphones if she's a DJ? And why doesn't she play anything slightly recognisable? Presumably listeners were tuning in for the company of her late night smoky voice. Anyway, The Fog is well enough made, but feels insubsantial and oddly bloodless - despite extensive reshoots imposed by the studio on Carpenter and Hill to extend the originally too-skimpy running time and make it more aggressive in its scares, we never saw a single drop of the red stuff, which lends the proceedings a curiously artificial mood in themselves. Not to its detriment, exactly, but it was not quite of a piece with its contemporaries in this mini-Golden age for horror. Mind you, compared to the 2005 remake, this looked like a real gem of rare quality. Music by Carpenter himself, as expected.
[The two-disk special edition DVD features an audio commentary by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill which goes into detail about how they basically had to shoot the film twice, two documentaries - one new and one vintage, amusing outtakes and more.]
Skillful American writer-director of supense movies, often in the science fiction or horror genres. Comedy Dark Star and thriller Assault on Precinct 13 were low budget favourites, but mega-hit Halloween kick-started the slasher boom and Carpenter never looked back.