The Fog of Horror

Later tonight, as in tomorrow morning on the east coast, TCM airs The Fog, the 1980 John Carpenter movie that, like a lot of John Carpenter movies, opened to middling reviews only to be heartily welcomed into the horror canon later.  This also happened with his 1982 remake of The Thing from Another World, this time around simply titled The Thing, which opened to downright bad reviews but now has a solid reputation among horror fans, including this one.   Later, Carpenter’s Christine suffered much the same fate.  I saw Christine when it opened and thought it okay.   A few years ago I watched it again and found it superior to much of what modern horror produces.   Even Halloween was only given a few loving notices by Roger Ebert and Tom Allen originally while Pauline Kael led the charge against it as derivative crap.  So, Ebert/Kael… I mean, flip a coin on that one, right?  Eventually Ebert’s side won and the film is today regarded as a classic.   Why they all took so long I think is not related to Carpenter so much as it is related to horror.  Horror misdirects and confuses the audience, uses plot devices easily belittled and picked apart, and generally uses storytelling techniques so far removed from subtlety they don’t even occupy the same hemisphere.  Behind all that could be a great movie but sometimes critics, and audiences too, can get lost in the fog of horror.


Many ghost stories make little sense.  Let’s look at The Fog since that’s the movie that started this post.  If you haven’t seen it, and would like to, SPOILER WARNING, I’m going to discuss its plot right now.

The small town of Antonio Bay is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary when the town priest (I mean, he’s not specifically identified as “the town priest” but this is a horror movie so let’s just call him that for fun), Father Malone, played by the great Hal Holbrook, discovers his grandfather’s diary when a big chunk of stone falls out of one of the walls in his church, and the diary is behind it.   He finds out that his grandfather, one of the six founders of the town, wasn’t that great a guy.  In fact, he was a murderer and a thief.  He and the five other founders used a beach fire to lead a ship into the rocks that carried enough gold to, uh, start a town.  The ship belonged to a wealthy man, and leper, named Blake, and the founders didn’t want any lepers or leper colonies near them so bye-bye leper ship.  Plus, they got to keep the gold.  Now, one hundred years later, Blake and his men are back for revenge on the relatives of those founders (that’s not made perfectly clear but it’s implied, sort of).  The question is, why wait a hundred years?  I mean, you’re dead.  From the moment you die, and become a ghost, why not have revenge on the very people that killed you right then and there?!

“Hey, this guy killed me!  I’m so mad, I’m going to wait a full century, and then kill his grandson!  That’ll show him!”

I’m sorry, what?  It’s a silly plot device.  I’ve often wondered what in the hell Blake and his men were doing for that hundred years.  Did this plan really take that long to hatch?  Was there 99 years of, “What do you wanna do tonight, Blake?”  “I don’t know, Angie, what do you wanna do?” and then, in the last half of the 99th year, someone said, “I got it!”  And then after that Eureka moment, all they came up with was “push things around, make telephones ring, and move really slow when attempting to kill someone.”  That was their plan?!  No wonder they were so easily fooled into sailing into the rocks.   Okay, END SPOILER.

It’s not just The Fog, of course.  Horror stories dealing with the paranormal, as opposed to mad killer horror stories, often deal in plots that don’t make a hell of a lot of sense.  I mean, honestly, why would a vengeful ghost care about an anniversary?  They wouldn’t but dramatically, it works very well.  And there are so many other examples.  For instance…

Why would a demon spirit go into a girl (The Exorcist) in the first place?  It has survived for far longer than any one person ever could and if it needed a body to move around in, one, why didn’t it pick someone who could drive and, two, why did it do everything in its power to reveal itself so everyone made sure the little girl would get tied down to her bed?  And if it could leap from person to person with ease, as it does at the end when Father Karras so easily fools it into coming into him (this is one dumb demon spirit – “Hey, he would be a better choice!”), why didn’t it just do that earlier when Karras was unaware on his first visit to Regan.  She was tied down, he was free and able-bodied.  So go ahead, make the switch, what are you waiting for, an invita… oh, wait.


Why would a dead girl decide to make a tape (Ringu) and if you watch it but don’t share it she’ll kill you but not immediately, only after seven days?  So, what, the dead girl actually decided, “Okay, I’ll give them seven days and if they haven’t shown it to someone else yet, that’s it, they’re dead”?  And why, because you were killed, would you decide to kill anyone other than your killer and if you decided, inexplicably, to randomly kill anyone, why would you make a videotape the x-factor in all of this?

If you want to kill a girl in the house you once lived in (The Conjuring), why not just take possession of the mother of the girl first thing, kill her and be done with it?  Why, again, like so many of these, loudly and persistently announce yourself, for days and weeks until experts are called it and everyone that can possibly stop you is now, in fact, in place to stop you when you finally – you moron – decide to actually take the girl and kill her?

And that is the fog of horror.  It gets in the way when it shouldn’t.  There’s not a thing I said above that actually affects how I view any one of those movies.  I never find myself pulled out of Halloween because Michael Myers knows how to drive a car (it’s one of the more infamous “mistakes” of the movie – Myers is taken into custody when he’s a child and yet, years later, as an adult, he breaks out of the psychiatric hospital by effectively, and perfectly, driving a car.  Apparently, he took lessons at some point in the violent ward.)  Many movies have little things like this (Citizen Kane, of course, has the nurse walk into the room after he says “Rosebud” and yet everyone seems to know that was his last word – I say there was a proto-proto-proto baby monitor in the room) but horror deals in plot devices that practically wallow in the illogical and the irrational.  That’s what suspending disbelief is all about.  A lot of good movies are hiding in plain sight behind inexplicable plot devices that drive us to distraction.   Sometimes, you just have to look for them.  And if you haven’t seen The Fog, give it a look.  I don’t guarantee you’ll like it – certain genres are hit and miss with a lot of people, horror is one of them) but you will get to see some ghosts who really appreciate the importance of centennials, even if it means killing the wrong people.

16 Responses The Fog of Horror
Posted By James : October 22, 2014 12:21 pm

I have unabashedly loved The Fog since I first watched it as a kid (when it scared me, badly, as a lot of horror films did then). Bought the Scream Factory blu-ray the day it was released.

I think the key scene in the movie is the first, with John Houseman telling the story of the shipwreck for a group of kids around a campfire (although, admittedly, Carpenter shot that scene after filming was initially completed, because the first edit was too short for a feature). The Fog is the cinematic equivalent of the campfire tale (and, as such, much better than the crappy Friday the 13th films. Who needs logic in a scary story told around a camp fire?

Regarding Carpenter, specifically, I consider him a “form” artist more than a “content” artist, at least as his earlier films go (any of them pre-Starman, say). He’s not hitting psychological insights like a Hitchcock or a Tourneur, but working with bravura shot composition, tight editing and fluid camera work. It could be horror, or science fiction, or action, but Carpenter is a master at creating an over-all mood and atmosphere with the camera, with the genre being a secondary consideration. The Fog is all about his use of Panavision for chilling effect, with some beautiful and haunting widescreen compositions, aided by Dean Cundey’s terrific photography. The movie has a greater spooky atmosphere than almost all of today’s horror films.

Regarding the critical reputation of Halloween, I’m pretty sure Vincent Canby at The New York Times belatedly gave the film his endorsement in a Sunday write-up.

Regarding “Rosebud,” you, the viewer, hear Kane. That’s what matters. By watching the movie, you are trying to solve the mystery.

Posted By swac44 : October 22, 2014 1:56 pm

I saw The Fog upon its release in the theatre, for some reason it was only rated Adult, which mean you could get in if you were under 14 (Halloween, by comparison, earned the Canadian version of Restricted, which meant no one under 18 could get in, with or without a parent), so it was my first proper big screen modern horror experience. I was completely sucked in by the film, although the cinema was not in the best part of town and at some point during the screening some creppy dude sat down next to my friend Glen and put a hand on his leg, which led to a lot of screaming and commotion (creepy dude scuttled away into the darkness).

Possibly scarred my friend for life, but it made for a memorable screening for everyone else in the theatre that day.

Posted By tdraicer : October 22, 2014 3:36 pm

>(it’s one of the more infamous “mistakes” of the movie – Myers is taken into custody when he’s a child and yet, years later, as an adult, he breaks out of the psychiatric hospital by effectively, and perfectly, driving a car. Apparently, he took lessons at some point in the violent ward.

Since (SPOILER ALERT) it is revealed at the end that he is not a psychopath but some embodiment of ancient evil, I have no problem assuming ancient evil has picked up driving skills somewhere along the way.

I’ve always felt that if one is bothered by the plot holes in a film that means the film has bigger problems than plot holes. Of course, there are people who refuse to suspend disbelief under any circumstances, but since all stories with plots have holes, they should probably stick with non-fiction. Reality is full of plot holes as well, but being reality, it gets held to a lower standard than fiction.

Posted By gregferrara : October 22, 2014 5:25 pm

Since (SPOILER ALERT) it is revealed at the end that he is not a psychopath but some embodiment of ancient evil, I have no problem assuming ancient evil has picked up driving skills somewhere along the way.

I actually attended the Ancient Evil Driving School when I was fifteen. Not bad but they’re sticklers on parallel parking.

I’ve always felt that if one is bothered by the plot holes in a film that means the film has bigger problems than plot holes.

Of course, as you know, you and I are in agreement on this one going way back. Plot holes only bother me when the movie stinks in which case I start thinking, “Couldn’t they have at least gotten that right?!” When the movie’s good, I think, “Who cares if they got that right, there’s so much they got perfectly.”

Posted By gregferrara : October 22, 2014 5:31 pm

James, as I allude to in the piece with Christine, many of Carpenter’s efforts look even better now when compared to what came after. He has a real sense of atmosphere and building up to something rather than relying on endless jumpscares and gore, even though he does employ a lot of gore. And jumpscares. But they feel in service to the overall mood, more a means to an end rather than the end.

Posted By gregferrara : October 22, 2014 5:31 pm

Swac, that creepy guy was me. Tell your friend I’m sorry.

Posted By swac44 : October 22, 2014 6:13 pm

He wound up moving back to Newfoundland (well, his family did, as a 13 year old he didn’t have much choice in the matter) and was never heard from again. At least now I have someone to blame.

Posted By Emgee : October 22, 2014 7:36 pm

“The question is, why wait a hundred years?”
They got lost in the fog. Ha!

Posted By AL : October 22, 2014 8:56 pm

John Carpenter? THEY LIVE! *****

Posted By Doug : October 22, 2014 11:40 pm

A fun post, Greg; without getting too deep into demon psychology, in The Exorcist the demon may have attached itself to a young girl in order to subvert her purity, and the fact that Reagan had to be tied up may have fed into the demon’s perversity.
In a way the demon was forcing the priests to ‘punish’ her against their will.
No one ever said that demons are nice.
The Conjuring may be a ‘big ol’ cornball of 70′s horror’ thriller, but I love it.
As for The Fog and the 100 years…perhaps they use a different calendar over there, and for the ghosts it was only a moment, a night.

Posted By gregferrara : October 23, 2014 3:20 am

When I put on my special sunglasses, they tell me to obey AL, so I do! Long live, THEY LIVE!

Posted By gregferrara : October 23, 2014 3:22 am

Emgee, an astute observation.

Posted By gregferrara : October 23, 2014 3:24 am

n The Exorcist the demon may have attached itself to a young girl in order to subvert her purity,

I’m sure that actually is the motive but then you ask of the demon, “You can do anything in this world and the next that you want and this is what you do?!” Demons, they’ll drive you crazy.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : October 23, 2014 2:19 pm

The Fog scared me a lot as a junior high school kid who watched it repeatedly on HBO. I was (and still am) a big fan of Carpenter. Even his lesser movies are worth a view (Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, although they both have terrible endings). Just not Escape from L.A.

Posted By James : October 23, 2014 2:38 pm

I love both Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness. Not many horror films evoke Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, but the former does (with some Nigel Kneale in there, as well). Referring back to Greg’s comment, the atmosphere that Carpenter creates in both films are beautifully uncanny. I love the self-reflexive ending of Madness, myself. But it’s also the last Carpenter film I really love.

Posted By george : October 24, 2014 8:52 pm

I was in college when THE FOG came out, and it didn’t scare me. There was no scene that made me jump, as happened with HALLOWEEN. But it certainly held my interest.

To quote film critic Glenn Kenny (who is my age and also saw it in 1980): “It still isn’t very scary, but God, what a beautifully crafted movie.”

I wish John Carpenter was still churning out a movie every year, as he did for many years. His last movie, THE WARD, came out four years ago … and it was his first theatrical feature since 2001′s GHOSTS OF MARS. His craftsmanship is sorely missing from recent genre movies.

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