Shudder Watch: The Splendid Leanness of THE FOG

Spoilers abound. Be warned.

John Carpenter’s The Fog initially had an 80-minute runtime before Carpenter, dissatisfied with what he believed to be “a movie that didn’t work,” reshot some scenes to improve what he didn’t care for and make the movie bit more coherent where he felt it was needed. These reshoots included new and extended scenes, which beefed the runtime up to a whopping 89-minutes. Ironically, one of the added scenes makes the movie cut even more abruptly to the chase than it would have otherwise.

In the opening scene, an old sailor is sharing an important piece of local ghostlore to a group of captivated children. That ghost story gives us about 90% of the background information regarding who our antagonists are what their motivation is. It precedes the titular fog’s first appearance and the killings associated with it, so that by the time it happens there’s little mystery as to who’s behind the killings and why. Excise this scene and we’d have to instead wait for Father Malone’s reading of his grandfather’s diary, which comes in around the 40-minute mark, to get a proper explanation as to what’s going on (presuming you haven’t read a synopsis in advance). As it is, the information in the diary just fleshes out the final 10% of  the story that the opening campfire tale wasn’t privy to.

Carpenter clearly wasn’t interested in wasting anyone’s time. The movie has little to no interest in its subplots. The potential “romantic” subplot between Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins is actually a “casual hookup/we’re just hanging out” aside that gives the characters a bit of life, but doesn’t come close to distracting from the primary story. Adrienne Barbeau’s DJ-in-a-Lighthouse is a single-mother whose son is there to discover key pieces of plot that get washed ashore, and to be a potential rescuee later in the movie. Her flirty interactions with the weatherman are just setting up a reason for her to hear things that will confirm her suspicions about the fog later in the film. No romantic detour for her, and no ex-husband / deadbeat dad drama surrounding her child’s father. When the chairwoman of the town’s Centennial Celebration finds out her husband must have died at sea, she grieves onscreen for less than 30 seconds before she’s like, “Welp, show must go on. Time to give my speech.” Who has time for any other business in a killer fog movie when there’s a killer fog out there fogging up the town and killing people?

I haven’t come out and said it yet, so now’s as good a time as any: I think The Fog is great. It’s a perfect Halloween-horror type of story. It’s grim, but hardly nihilistic, it’s dire but not dour, menacing although bloodless (more on that later), and ghastly if not full on frightening.

The characters aren’t especially deep, but they’re all built to be immediately interesting. We have the aforementioned DJ-in-a-Lighthouse, which is the kind of fictional job that I think would get ridiculed for being implausible if it showed up in a romantic comedy. We have an aspiring photographer hitchhiking her way to greener creative pastures. We have the local guy who’s apparently cool enough to pick up pretty young hitchhikers and have them want to sleep with him on the first night, and then they just chill in bed together looking through her portfolio like it’s nothing, just stuff that adults do, which, you know, of course it is.

Everything about the movie is so very matter-of fact. When our trusted local DJ starts issuing warnings to the population to stay off the streets and avoid the fog, we see the aforementioned chairwoman and her assistant–who haven’t encountered anything remotely resembling a threat so far–immediately take the DJ at her word. Granted, the night before the entire town basically experienced some kind of unexplained kinetic havoc that set off car alarms and blew out windows, so it’s not as if they had no reason to believe that something bizarre was afoot. Nonetheless, the refusal to waste time on characters debating the believability of what’s transpiring helps keep the movie so lean. The leanness is part of what makes the flick such a blast. It’s funhouse horror done right.

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It’s also an example of how good a PG-13 horror movie can be if it’s, you know, made well. “But John Carpenter’s original was rated R, you idiot. Are you talking about that pathetic remake, you dumbass know-nothing.” First off, the name-calling is unbecoming. Secondly, the R-rating for the original film is incredibly bogus. I mentioned earlier that this film is entirely bloodless, and the quick glimpses of gore we see, courtesy of the rotted faces of the restless dead, isn’t as graphic as any of the gruesome images seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a PG movie that came out a year later. Carpenter and Debra Hill (co-writer and producer of the film) stated that one reason for the reshoots was to add gore to the film to help it stand amongst the gorier horror movies that the 80’s would soon bring us. In that respect, the reshoots apparently failed miserably. Again, there is literally no blood in the movie. The juicy corpses are maybe as horrid as any of the ones seen in the decidedly PG-13 remake of The Mummy, only the fetid faces in The Fog get far, far less screen time. If this movie were re-rated today it easily be PG-13. It’s rated R because PG-13 didn’t exist in 1980, and because the MPAA is, at best, wildly inconsistent.

So do I have any beefs with The Fog at all? Well, on this rewatch, it did strike me as a little odd and contrived that Father Malone stopped reading his grandfather’s diary after reading about all of the murderous conspiracy bits. “I couldn’t read any further” he said. Really? Because I feel like you already got through the worst of it? What did you think you were going to see on the next page? “Now that I’ve developed a taste for murder, I think I’m going to take a trip to London, target some prostitutes, taunt Scotland Yard with a letter or two.” A few pages deeper and he would have found out about the important-but-not fact that the church’s large gold cross was made from the melted down gold stolen from our vengeful spirits.

Then there’s the ending, which I’m probably sourer on now than I was when I was younger, just because it reminds me of the issues horror movies still have with ending confidently absent “one last scare.” The story is concluded. Six had to die to pay for the number of lives lost, or so we thought, but the unexpected repayment of the stolen gold appeared to quell the bloodthirst of the spirits after all, sparing the sixth life. Does it make a ton of a sense? Eh. But no less than Blake’s spirit seeming to accept the gold as recompense, only to come back later as though he changed his mind. How did that go down?

“All right boys, we did it. We rode the fog into town, killed the five that had to die and even reclaimed our gold as a bonus.”

“Uh, boss. There are six of us. Six had to die.”

“What? No. It’s just five. I counted before we left. There’s you, Brad, Smokey–”

“You forgot to count yourself again, didn’t you?”

“…shit. Shit. Now I have to go all the way back there…”

Ultimately, these are minor things, and my final verdict on The Fog should be apparent.

Worth your time?

Always and forever. Pick an evening, any evening–although preferably a foggy one–put this one on and enjoy.

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