Saturday, May 19, 2012


A few weeks ago, I was trying to figure out some of the visual storytelling techniques used in PET SEMATARY, one of my favorite horror films of the 1980s.   (I’ve decided that the superimposed image of the Pascow ghost must have been shot at a different film speed for grainier shadows, giving him a dreamlike quality.)  This week, I’m obsessing about the aural storytelling techniques that John Carpenter uses in THE FOG.

The first time I saw this film, it was in black and white.  I was seven or eight and the movie was playing on late-night TV.  I wasn’t technically allowed to watch it, so I had to sneak bits and pieces on a small, black and white TV in my bedroom.  I couldn’t turn the sound up, so I had to sit close to the speaker, with my face practically pressed against the screen.  I caught the final act, where Blake’s spirits attack the church and the lighthouse, in its entirety.... and those images of the fog swallowing up the coastal town of Antonio Bay were seared into my memory.
A few years later, I read the novelization by Dennis Etchison and found that I couldn’t get Carpenter’s music out of my head as I was reading.  The music was such a vital part of the story that I couldn’t even separate it from words on the page.   By the time I was in high school, I had come to think of THE FOG as the ideal supernatural horror film (I had not yet discovered Val Lewton) because it did something that most horror films in the 1980s didn’t do.  It focused primarily on atmosphere, rather than shock and sensationalism, to scare its audience.  Like several of Carpenter’s films, THE FOG is a masterpiece of brooding fatalism, and its sense of fate is conveyed largely through music and sound design.

It’s no secret that Carpenter struggled with THE FOG, and regards it as one of his less successful films.  When I interviewed him for NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE, this is what he had to say about it:  

“I kind of fucked it up the first time through.  I finished the film and it wasn’t very good, so we had to go back and fix it.  Do some re-shooting, change some things, change the music.  It made it slightly different than what I had originally wanted.  The idea was to make an old-fashioned ghost story.  Turned out that the first version of it was too old fashioned.  It just wasn’t very interesting.

I looked at it and I thought, What is wrong with this thing?  It’s just not working.  So I went back to the head of the studio at the time and I said, “I need to do some more work on this thing.  It’s just not frightening.  I need to pump it up.”  So I got back in there and started to re-cut it and figured out what we needed.  I remember shooting a big long scene that took place [below deck on a boat].   Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis come aboard and they go downstairs and Tom tells this ghost story.  That wasn’t in the original version.  [I added] things like that.  And also amplified the ending, made it a little bit more seat-gripping.  A little more tension-filled.  But it never was the movie I wanted to make.  It was too diverse.  Too many ghosts.  It wasn’t focused enough on one or two people. 

Plus I’m not altogether sure that ghosts as we know them are all that scary.  What do they do?  They walk around, walk through walls....  Japanese ghosts attack you. American ghosts usually just appear as a vision.  Well, big deal.  You might as well be talking about the image of the Virgin Mary on a cheese sandwich.  Or Jesus in some rhubarb.   So what?   What does it do?  Doesn’t do anything.”

I agree that old-fashioned ghost stories are a tough sell these days, but maybe not simply because the ghosts are passive.  The old-fashioned ghost stories that I find most engaging are stories that undermine and ultimately transform a person’s worldview.  When I was working on the Discovery Channel TV series A HAUNTING, I always started conducting interviews the same way -- by admitting that, if I ever personally saw a ghost (and couldn’t dismiss it as a hallucination), the experience would force me to re-think my foundational beliefs about the nature of reality.   My assumption is that, on some level, it would be a bit like becoming a kid again, without a firm grasp on the way the world really works.  That’s where fear comes in.  And that’s the reason that a ghost story should focus on only one or two people.  The audience has to closely identify with a character’s worldview in order to be shaken up when that worldview is threatened. 

The theatrical version of THE FOG doesn’t adhere to this idea.  For that reason the film may not achieve the type of cerebral horror that Carpenter was aiming at, but in my opinion it is still a very accomplished piece of storytelling.  While the film occasionally resorts to shock and sensationalism (it had to compete, after all, with the glut of slasher movies that followed Carpenter’s previous film HALLOWEEN), it never falls short on atmosphere.  Carpenter’s score and sound design imbue the fog with a menace that is just as powerful and unrelenting as that of Michael Myers.  Carpenter turned Myers into a face-less force of nature.  The fog is already a face-less force of nature.  Both draw their strength primarily from music. 

In an excellent essay entitled “Hearing Deep Seated Fears,” K.J. Donnelly defines Carpenter’s music as “primal” and “inhuman” because it is minimalist, repetitive and entirely electronic.  Donnelly also points out that, as the director, Carpenter is able to integrate music and sound design as “an essential component of the overall conception of film as an organic object.”   In other words, Carpenter’s music is much more than a backdrop for his stories.  Rather, the music is the soul -- or, perhaps more to the point, the lack of soul -- of his films.  Try watching HALLOWEEN or THE FOG with the sound off, and you’ll see what I mean.  For that matter, try watching Carpenter’s most recent film THE WARD.  In my opinion, it just doesn’t feel like a John Carpenter movie because it lacks a John Carpenter score.  (I got excited a while back when Carpenter announced that he was going to provide an original score for an e-comic.  Unfortunately, the e-comic turned out to be a John Carpenter score in the absence of a John Carpenter story. I digress.)

Anyone interested in Carpenter’s work -- or horror films in general, for that matter -- should really read Donnelly’s essay.  I won’t try to paraphrase his observations here, because frankly I don’t have a strong enough grasp on musical terminology to do it justice.  What I will do is point to a few scenes in THE FOG that help to illustrate just how integral the music is to the film. 

First and foremost is the opening scene around the campfire.  Carpenter cast John Houseman, a classically-trained voice actor, as his prologue storyteller “Mr. Machen” (a nod to horror author Arthur Machen).   This is one of the scenes that Carpenter added in re-shoots and it does an exceptional job of establishing the brooding atmosphere, as well as embracing the kind of “old-fashioned” oral storytelling that Carpenter was aiming for.  Right off the bat, we can tell that THE FOG has more in common with horror radio shows of the 1930s and 40s than it does with horror films of the early 1980s, due to its overwhelming reliance on music and sound design.  The slow, deliberate pacing of Houseman’s delivery in the opening scene is augmented by a sublime musical overture that samples all of Carpenter’s themes to come... a subtle rumination on Fate.

The following sequence unravels the ominous events of the night before Antonio Bay’s 100th birthday.  I’m not sure if this sequence was part of the re-shoots or not, but it sets an equally eerie tone and establishes another oral storyteller.  Whereas Houseman’s character functions mostly as a character outside of the main story (though he too is a citizen of Antonio Bay), Adrienne Barbeau’s character Stevie Wayne functions as our narrator within the story.   She quite literally narrates the show -- telling us everything we need to know through voiceover, without shattering the illusion that we are experiencing the story firsthand.   This is another example of Carpenter’s ability to adopt classic storytelling techniques and make them his own.

Of course Carpenter is also a very strong visual storyteller.  He chose the Point Reyes Lighthouse in Central California as the location for Stevie Wayne’s radio station, and I can’t image a better setting.  This location gives our narrator (and us, by extension) the best possible vantage point from which to assess the threat of the fog.  It also makes Stevie Wayne potentially the most vulnerable character in the story... because that lighthouse is about as isolated and dangerous as a place can be. 

Last year, my wife and I drove out to the filming location and it was so far off the beaten track, so far from the coastline, that we nearly ran out of gas.   Once we got there, we had to walk down 300 steps to get to the lighthouse itself.  When the fog rolled in, both the ocean and the land disappeared.  Alone in such conditions, it would not be hard for a person to feel like they were the last person on earth, and to recognize that they are completely at the mercy of Mother Nature.

When I watched THE FOG recently, it got me thinking about a 1950s monster movie called THE TROLLENBERG TERROR (a.k.a. THE CRAWLING EYE), in which a small group of scientists get stranded in a shack in the Alps and surrounded by a mysterious fog.   After a series of mysterious decapitations (!), it becomes clear that something bad is lurking in that fog.  The most memorable scene is comes when one of the scientists opens the door of the shack and sees "the terror" waiting outside.  If what she sees doesn’t shatter her worldview, I don’t know what would. 

Carpenter’s reveal in THE FOG can’t really compete with THE TROLLENBERG TERROR.  His threat is strongest when it remains mysterious -- a strange, spectral glow within a white shroud.   The fog doesn’t just conceal the threat.  The fog is the threat: a living, breathing monster.  I suspect that Carpenter’s original intention was to not reveal what was inside the fog... or, at least, to not reveal it entirely.  (THE TROLLENBERG TERROR ingeniously found a way to have its cake and eat it too... but if I say any more, I’ll be ruining the moment for those who haven’t seen it.)

THE FOG loses some of its momentum whenever the threat takes a human form.   For example, one of Carpenter’s added scenes features Jamie Lee Curtis in a morgue with a body that is apparently possessed by dead pirates.  It’s a well-crafted scare scene, but not a moment of horror that's worthy of the likes of Arthur Machen or H.P. Lovecraft.  Why?  Because the real horror has no physical form.  It is, like the fog, formless.  The real object of horror is the Unknown.   

Carpenter may have occasionally resorted to the simpler shocks and sensationalism of knife-wielding (or, rather, hook-wielding) slashers, but it remains clear throughout THE FOG that he still understands where the real source of horror lies... and it’s not Jesus in the rhubarb.   Ambient music and the lonely sounds of a foghorn constantly reinforce a child’s sense of isolation, wonder and fear-without-object.   When the fog attacks, the music becomes primal, mimicking a fast-paced heartbeat.   Carpenter then manages to do with music what most horror filmmakers try to do with fast picture edits... he chases us.   

We watch helplessly as the Fog overwhelms the Seagrass, the weather station, Andy’s house, main street Antonio Bay, the old church and finally the lighthouse.   We intuitively understand that there is no escape -- not just because we can see how unstoppable the fog is, but because we can hear how unstoppable it is.  The music is unrelenting, unforgiving, inhuman.  How can we fight something like that?  We can’t.  All we can do is run or stop and stare in awe.


  1. That was a pleasure to read Joe.

    I also listened to that music at the end for the first time. Gosh, it just puts you in a trance. Wonderful stuff.

    The FOG is a brilliant little film and I love it for all of the reasons you so articulately attribute to the film.

    It is mood and music and fate and as ghost stories go they simply don't get much better.

    I bought the film and need to watch it again soon.

    I agree with you too that films today have lost all of the things that make this film work so well - atmosphere. I mean, you hid in that closet with the little boy. You feared the fog.

    I think The Mist is a throwback to a film like this to an extent which is why I loved that film as well. But I suppose The Mist is more of a balance of atmosphere and the graphic depictions of the things contemporary audiences have come to expect. Still, The Mist is a good film working on some of the same levels, but it can't touch the achievements of The Fog, which will never happen again.

  2. Thanks, Gordon! I really should try watching THE MIST again. I liked it, but didn't love it as much as everyone else did. I think most of my disappointment came from having read the novella, which required me to build the monsters in my own imagination rather than relying on the filmmaker to do it for me.

    The subtleties of a film like THE FOG reinforce that old cliche that horror is more effective when it shows less. Not a popular idea these days. Even John Carpenter shot down the theory when I asked him about the influence of Val Lewton!!! (Who could have possibly guessed that Carpenter HATES Val Lewton?)

    In my opinion, "less is more" is a cliche because it's absolutely true, and I feel genuinely sorry for horror fans who don't know that from personal experience. They inhabit a smaller world that's frightening for very different reasons. For them, there is only the horror of having "seen it all."

    The thrill -- and, more importantly, that quasi-religious sense of awe that informs so much classic supernatural horror -- is gone.

    Now... how to get down from this soapbox?

  3. Absolutely Joe. I agree. The Mist falls somewhere in the middle. I understand. It lacks the pure sense of imagination abundant in a film like The Fog, but it's also not nearly as terrible as some of the shock graphic horror of today's cinema. But I completely undertstand your reservation for embracing The Mist. Afterall, it's certainly not The Fog.

  4. Wonderful piece, Joe. Great you could include John Carpenter theme from the film. I love THE FOG. It's great, too, you remember one of my all-time favorite monster movies as a kid, THE CRAWLING EYE. Both of these have such great and pervasive atmosphere to them. Well done.

    p.s., you and I appear to be on the same boat with regard to Frank Darabont's adaptation of THE MIST and our love for Stephen King's source original novella.

  5. Michael --

    THE CRAWLING EYE is so much more effective (and subtle) than one would assume from the title / cover art. It's too bad that more people haven't seen it.

    I just re-read "The Mist" a few months ago. It still holds up!