Following the sudden trajectory of his career after the immense success of Halloween, director John Carpenter could have taken on just about any project. His slasher debut cut box-office numbers out of thousands, pulling in some $70 million worldwide. It thrust Carpenter’s name onto marquees next to the likes of Friedkin and De Palma as another bankable auteur of the horror genre. Instead of becoming lost and misshaped in the Hollywood grinder, the relatively new director decided to derive a small, fairly intimate campfire ghost story out of a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘A Dream Within A Dream’ that asks, “Is all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream?” In quoting Poe– one of Debra Hill’s many contributions – about the dual nature of reality as well as setting his film within the fictional beachside town of Antonio Bay, Carpenter subverts the belief that the ocean represents life, presenting a rolling allegory on time and death that marks THE FOG as an unheralded masterpiece in storytelling.
It opens on the beach of its respective town (in reality Port Rays of northern California) with a ghost story – close to the witching hour lighthouse DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) says in her breezy, lounge delivery – told to a group of young kids as a pocket watch is super-imposed in front of them (a nod to De Palma’s trademark split diopter). A crusty-old sea captain, sitting between the town and his young audience, tells (and foreshadows) a fireside tale about a shipwrecked vessel named the Elizabeth Dane and its drowned crew, emphasizing the date in which the spirits of those who died will return. As he concludes his tale, a distant bell rings out which introduces the midnight hour along with THE FOG’s title-card set against the beaches shore.
In quoting Poe, Carpenter sets up the towns cresting ocean as life (“a dark unfathomed tide, of interminable pride” Poe’s poem goes), one that sits outside the windows of a town that seems almost lost to time. What’s established here by placing the beach in the foreground and the vast ocean in the background is that these two elements – one further illustrated through the ringing of the bell (time) and the other seen as a staple of Antonio Bay (life) – do indeed co-exist together.
Because as much as Carpenter’s story (co-written with Debra Hill) is a classic campfire tale about a killer fog that hides its fair share of ghosts – one of them played by the films editor Tommy Lee Wallace – it’s really a ghost story about time. Like the fog, it surrounds us, corners us and is inescapable. Just as the citizens of Antonio Bay succumb to its creeping, outstretched hands, we too will eventually fall to its sheathed sword. It’s what makes the films dread that much more palpable.
In opening with a story told to a group of eager and terrified youths, we are reminded at how time itself once felt merely like a ghost story, an idea passed down to us from older generations. To quote Bruce Lee, “If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.” To us, time couldn’t possibly be as swift, unforgiving and futile as we were told. As youth, we have all the time in the world. It’s never prescient, which in part is what makes it so damn effective as a cinematic tool for horror; it’s life’s boogeyman, something we fear but deduce isn’t real. Or is it?
Perched atop the lighthouse overlooking the ocean is Stevie, and while she acts as a beacon of hope for ships, she’s really the towns timekeeper, giving those who tune in the hour on the hour. For her, life is observed and watched over – further symbolized through her single parenting of her own kid (played by Ty Mitchell) – noting through a smoky sigh that there’s, “nothin’ but water, Stevie” (but it sure beats Chicago). A serene vista of tranquil waves symbolize a new life for her, one adjacent to the hustle of a city miles away from any ocean.
This is a town that’s on the precipice of life yet consumed by time. Carpenter even inserts himself within an early scene between him and Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) in which he plays Bennett, a church caretaker. Asking if he can get paid for his work, Father Malone backpedals and tells him to come in later (than usual) for his next shift. After all, time is money.
But for Carpenter, time is everything (and as a director this couldn’t be more painfully true). It’s what carries the tide in, tells ships when to head out, and eventually calls forth the impending fog. Time is everywhere, seen through multiple close-ups of clocks while constantly being told to us through the contrasting sounds of Stevie’s voice – one that’s full of sensuality and life – and the towns church bells. It’s forewarned by Malone after he finds a journal buried within the church walls that tells of how the crew of the Elizabeth Dane perished – a resulting plot by the six founders of Antonio Bay who used the gold from the ships ruins to build the town.
The seemingly calm ocean representing life in the eyes of Carpenter and Poe is now a bond between death and time, one that creeps across the sea in a ominously glowing fog that stands as one of the directors most efficacious images. It’s pure dread wrapped around a simple ghost story that moves like the sands of time. One that pulsates beneath this thick, suffocating killer that demonstrates how Carpenter manages to channel horror from the amorphous (a distinct contrast from his use of Halloween’s infamous shape).
This is a killer that attacks the bay only during the witching hour – between midnight and one – that carries with it leprous sailors equipped with hooks and swords. It’s an hour that passes long after the kids have (supposedly) gone to sleep, when the nights air is filled with the soothing sounds of KAB Radio and the calm of the ocean. A nocturnal state that passes over us in which time no longer exists. And like the ocean, we recede further away from time and reality.
It’s all what makes THE FOG such a waking tale of almost lucid horror, its bewitching glow from its encompassing shroud captivating us the way the glow of a campfire would. Carpenter and Debra Hill, along with second-time cinematographer Dean Cundey (whose first collaboration brought his Panaramoric vision of Haddonfield to life) evoke a timeless ghost story within a reality skewed landscape. One that shifts (as Carpenter states in his commentary) in 24 hours between three acts (night, day and concluding again at night) as a band of survivors (made up of Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh and Nancy Kyes) must hold out against a foe that has somehow transcended time.
Because the older we get, the less terrified we become of old fireside tales about ghosts and more afraid of time wafting over us in an enveloping cloud of death. Something that either is or feels like we have no control over.
This is something that John Carpenter films understand. Whether it’s an uncompromising force stalking the streets of suburbia, the seductive power of a seemingly indestructible vehicle or the madness of a good book, it’s the things that seem unyielding and out of our control that strike at the heart of true horror. They upend our simple, rational understanding (and timelessness) of the ghost story. And to this day, THE FOG surrounds us with an all too real fear of what it means to let time slip away, evolving over the decades into an epoch of storytelling that stands as one of the directors masterpieces of terror.