Thursday, October 29, 2015

John Carpenter, part VI: Everything you see and know is built on the bodies and bones of those who came before


After all the sex murder of Halloween, John Carpenter's next project was as far away from the new-style slasher genre as anything could have been while still featuring impalements and eye-gouging.  But if you asked me, it was the great director's first unambiguously great movie.

Written and directed by John Carpenter
With Adrienne Barbeau (Stevie Wayne), Hal Holbrook (Father Malone), Tom Atkins (Nick Castle), Jamie Lee Curtis (Elizabeth Solley), Charles Cyphers (Dan O'Bannon), Janet Leigh (Kathy Williams), John Houseman (Mr. Machen), and Rob Bottin (Blake)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The Fog isn't the best version of itself: all of its problems might just be tiny little filmmaking hiccups, but they still arrive with enough frequency that you are consistently reminded that what you're watching isn't nearly as perfect as it could've been.  And even so, when it's over, it still kind of feels perfect anyway.

After the breakout success of Halloween, it must have been a disappointment for John Carpenter's backers when he made a movie that returned only twenty times its production budget, rather than over two hundred.  And to this day it somehow maintains a reputation as a minor work.  But maybe that's to be expected: made by a man who seemed to be totally insensitive to the seismic shift in the horror landscape that he himself had caused, The Fog represents just about the single most old-fashioned ghost story ever put to film.

How old-fashioned is it?  Old-fashioned enough that upon screening the lackluster rough cut, Carpenter determined that his movie was too unscary to even be fun (and also too short to be marketed), and therefore engaged in extensive reshoots to add not just some blood and gore, but a whole new suspense sequence, so deftly intercut into the climax—and so absolutely necessary—that it's amazing that it wasn't scripted into the movie in the first place.  The reshoots give The Fog its wonderful hybrid quality, and it's striking just how how smoothly Carpenter transitions between ghostly visitations of the oldest school and contemporary slasher-style violence.

And yet it's The Fog's essential quaintness that is chiefest amongst its charms.  In another appended scene, this one added for the sake of runtime, The Fog sets its tone.  We begin with a campfire story that hides its fundamentally expository function behind its spooky narration, some evocative lighting, and a split-diopter shot to die for.  (OK, technically, we begin with a stunningly pointless Edgar Allan Poe quote.)  But even though Carpenter seems psychotically determined to ruin this otherwise flawless prologue with an egregiously bad quick-zoom upon our storyteller's face, it nevertheless readies the mind for what amounts to a playful fable with a dead serious moral buried not-too-deeply beneath its enjoyable, kids-stuff surface.

A century ago, the clipper ship Elizabeth Dane was sailing toward Antonio Bay when it was swallowed up by an opaque fog.  But the captain, Blake, was assured of his vessel's safety: a light pierced the mists, insisting that they were in no danger.  The light, however, was not the beacon that Blake believed.  It was a campfire set on the rocky beach.  The Dane ran aground, lost with all hands.  Now it is said that when the fog returns, Blake and all his vengeful crew shall return with it.  Such is the version of the story told to Antonio Bay's children.

And it is, in fact, true.  But the whole truth, unfortunately, it is not.  That we learn alongside Father Malone, when the California seaside town is beset by a plague of paranormal incidents.  Amongst the havoc wreaked by the restless spirits is a stone dislodged from the wall of Malone's church.  Behind the stone is a hollow.  Within the hollow lies a diary.  And within the diary is written a confession.  The disaster that befell the Dane was no accident, writes Malone's grandfather—it was murder.  The whole story of that fateful night goes like this: Blake and his crew were lepers, who had been promised a plot of land where they could live their lives in peace; the Dane was laden with Blake's payment in gold.  In one swoop, the men of Antonio Bay could rid themselves of unwanted neighbors, as well as take their enormous wealth.  Thus the conspirators, Malone's grandfather among them, drowned the Dane.  And upon this crime, these murderers—these six fathers of the city—built their village into a township, that has now stood for almost exactly one hundred years.

To mark the anniversary, the fog has indeed come back to Antonio Bay, bringing with it the wrath of the Elizabeth Dane.  Six must die to repay the men who killed Blake and his crew.

That's six.  Are you listening, Father Malone?

Confronting these dire wraiths are the disparate residents of modern Antonio Bay, slowly cluing in to the consequences waiting for the town on its hundredth birthday.  Foremost is Stevie Wayne, combining her nightly duties as the owner of the Bay's lighthouse with her duties as the town's sultry-voiced local-celebrity jazz DJ.  By day, she's a single mom.  She's a little tired, but while you get the feeling Stevie's a little lonely, too, it seems to be a deliberate choice she made long ago and has since come to terms with.  Her best (only?) friend is the chatty meteorlogist, Dan O'Bannon.  She becomes involved when her son finds a piece of the cursed ship, which nearly burns down her lighthouse when it spontaneously combusts.

We have our secondary players as well—fisherman Nick Castle, who has just picked up teen hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley when the wave of paranormal activity hits, and whose three friends were the ghosts' first victims.  And finally, there's Kathy Williams, the civic booster who's organized Antonio Bay's centennial celebration virtually single-handed.  On the night of the memorial, the ghostly fog descends upon the town.  It all shall end in the church where the secret of the Dane was buried a hundred years before.

And it's not till I wrote down all their names that Carpenter's callouts to his pals really started to bug me.

Now, none of this is nearly as complicated as that lengthy synopsis must make it sound: The Fog is delightfully simple, despite its half-dozen intersecting heroes.  The replacement of conventional characterization with narratively efficient (yet surprisingly unforced) intimacy was already the hallmark of Carpenter's storytelling style; but it's hard to name a film where he does it better.  He pares his cast down to their types, and thus the only real character to emerge is the town itself.  He creates Antonio Bay with a completely assured confidence that wasn't present in Assault on Precinct 13's Neo-Los Angeles nor even in Halloween's anonymous Haddonfield.

The center of its intricate network of relationships is Stevie, whose broadcasts feel like a sort of communion for the Bay, even though it's kind of impossible to believe a whole town is willing to subject themselves to non-copyrighted jazz, as opposed to the hard rock, punk, and bitchin' hair metal that was actually popular at the time, but was also deemed too expensive for a production on the scale of The Fog to get.  Even then, while a lack of music that anyone would obviously want to hear does slightly rankle on a first-time viewing, on the second it becomes an integral part of the Bay's social fabric, contributing almost as powerfully to The Fog's sense of place as Dean Cundey's positively sublime cinematography.

Of course, the standout shots involve the formless fog itself—something Carpenter realized, starting Day One, was the hugest pain in the ass to wrangle, but which Cundey seems to have an absolute blast with, using it to create gorgeous lighting effects, whether it be to backlight the shadows of the creeping ghosts or to isolate our heroes within bright white hells.  However, virtually everything in The Fog looks amazing.  It's not hard to make the Pacific Northwest appear fantastic, but Cundey's seasides, carefully chosen by Carpenter, offer a truly idyllic beauty.  Meanwhile, there's a long take during Nick and Elizabeth's investigation of the ghost-stricken fishing boat.  It is a quiet conversation, held underneath the most hypnotic swinging light as the boat tips back at forth on the waves.  It makes for an awesome horror movie set-up, naturally, but it would be worth loving without any connection to the ghost-thriller in progress at all:

Then, sadly, there's the photographic mistakes that mar Cundey's otherwise superlative scheme, notably an abysmal early sequence filmed in bright, broad daylight, captured on filmstock that begs for mercy while a platinum-haired Janet Leigh in a white dress swans about town, appearing like nothing so much as a hideous smear who glows like a melting-down pile of plutonium.  Yes, daylight photography was the very nemesis of 1970s and early 80s cinematography—but even taking into account The Fog's era, it has never looked this offensive.

I alluded to The Fog's problems before, and now's as good a time as any to just dump the ones I haven't listed yet—though I'll be brief.  As often as Carpenter transcends the limitations of his budget, The Fog still smacks of parsimony.  Sure, it was cheap—three times the cost of Halloween, yet somehow only half as expensive as the TV movie that immediately preceded it, Elvis—and this allows you to forgive the nasty optical effects that stand in for real fog in several establishing shots.  But then there are the moments that are simply too lo-fi to be adorable in a film that stands on the line between a low-budget feel and overambitious 'Scope spectacle—like when Carpenter said "print it," even though it must've been glaringly obvious that his ghost was having a lot of trouble opening a sliding door.

And when it's in maybe the most moodily-lit scene in the movie, it's not something that can easily go unnoticed, nor unremarked.

This happily concludes everything bad I have to say about The Fog (depending on my mood, you might be able to get me to complain about the deep lack of rigor with which Carpenter conceived his misty ghosts—I'm not in that mood right now, although I will offer that their intermittent telekinesis is nothing compared to the inexplicable revenant who attacks Elizabeth in a hospital).  No, instead, let's get to the meat.

As with Halloween, The Fog is an exploration of Carpenter's favorite idea—that evil will wait for as long as it must, but will not be denied forever.  But despite those film-ending frames of impending violence (that play like a good-natured joke as much as anything), the idea is subverted powerfully here, and The Fog doesn't see Carpenter resorting to his more typical theme of an elemental malevolence.  Blake and his men surely have a twisted idea of justice, no doubt nurtured into perversity by the century they spent below the ocean; yet their brightly-burning anger is founded not just upon the sins of the past, but wrongs still being perpetrated against them in the present.

"We're honoring murderers," Malone says, and he's right.  The American bicentennial had passed but four years before The Fog.  But filtered through the post-Nixon 1970s' cynicism, it was finally becoming clear that the old, comforting lies were no longer enough.  The next year, Blow Out would set Philadelphia's own tricentennial celebration as a stage for the macabre; but Carpenter's film likely remains the most single-minded cinematic expression of this anniversary angst.  The murderous greed that underpins The Fog is but part of the same process that made our whole nation, and there is no reason to expect forgiveness when we use the crimes of history as an excuse to throw a party.  We've been waking up to that reality only recently, and it's taken a lot of freshly-murdered people to finally get us to that point.

Good thing only white people come back as vengeful ghosts, or we'd all be in trouble!

But The Fog's not pitched as a lecture and it certainly isn't high on its own importance.  It lets its allegory slide gently into the mind, sugarcoating it with a marvelous little horror flick that is principally concerned with setting its stage, throwing light and darkness around like God made them specifically for the movies, kicking out some solid Carpenter synths, and—of course—hitting you with a few enjoyably low-impact scares in a hoary old idiom that people in 1980 clearly weren't terribly interested in, but which has nonetheless aged tremendously well today.

Score:  8/10

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