Friday, October 4, 2013

Review: The Fog (1980)

It's October. And you know what that means... lots and lots of horror movies!

The Fog (1980)

The Fog, horror icon John Carpenter's 1980 follow-up to Halloween, is a very good horror movie that, despite a thin plot and characters, consistently makes for tense viewing. Sporting eerie visuals, a great cast, and chilling use of music, The Fog is easily one of Carpenter's greater efforts. It's got a low body count and almost no gore, but those things should hardly factor into one's enjoyment of a good, old-fashioned spook show that delivers on almost all fronts.

What makes The Fog hold up after over thirty years (and one ill-advised remake) may just be its lack of pretension and special effects. The ghosts stalking our protagonists are almost always partially obscured by shadows and fog. The story is straightforward -- no ridiculous plot twists or soapy character drama, just pissed-off shipwreck victims coming back after 100 years to claim their vengeance on the town whose founders robbed and killed them. The lack of graphic violence means that, instead of dated gore effects, the kills are mostly left to the imagination, with the fog working to obscure in all its creepy glory. Had this been made today, it would be an almost certain PG-13. This is a film that focuses on building tension and scaring the viewer, first and foremost, and it does that with flying colors. Carpenter's visual style and especially his musical and audio cues ratchet up the tension while rarely explicitly telegraphing what is about to go down; just the sound of a car alarm, a steady banging, or Carpenter's trademark synth score could put ants in my pants. At times, though, the plot could be a little too straightforward. Not a lot of characters get much development beyond a basic sketch of who they are, with the deepest character being one who doesn't even show up on screen, only leaving his diary outlining the backstory. Also, some of them (particularly Stevie and Mrs. Kobritz) came to the conclusion that the fog was bad news a bit too early for my liking, with it taking almost nothing to convince them that there are ghosts lurking in it.

Said characters, though, are played by actors who are more than capable of providing them with personality where the script doesn't. Our three leads are Tom Atkins as the local boy Nick, Jamie Lee Curtis as the out-of-town hitchhiker Elizabeth, and last but certainly not least, Adrienne Barbeau as the radio DJ Stevie Wayne, and all three of them shine. Barbeau in particular manages to capture both the smooth, sexy, late-night classic rock DJ (that voice of hers... damn) and, when she's off-air, a woman who's gotten slightly annoyed with her job but puts up with it anyway. Janet Leigh (Curtis' mother -- and no, their characters aren't related in the film) and Nancy Loomis likewise manage to sell, respectively, the Leslie Knope-esque town festival organizer Kathy and her frazzled assistant Sandy, a relationship that evolves once Kathy's husband becomes one of the first victims of the ghosts. Lastly, we get the excellent Hal Holbrook as Father Malone, who has a personal connection to the ghosts and whose ancestors have a mountain of things to answer for.

Score: 4 out of 5

This is horror, stripped down to its bare essentials, working towards the singular goal of giving you goosebumps. If you're expecting non-stop frights, look elsewhere, but if you have patience and are willing to use your imagination, this is essential viewing for this October.

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