Sunday, July 09, 2017

John Carpenter Revisited: THE FOG (1980)

Art by Cat Staggs
THE FOG is one of my favorite John Carpenter movies—partly for sentimental reasons, and partly because it is one of the most brilliantly sound-designed horror movies of all time.  To me, it’s effectively a tone poem.  I’ve already written about THE FOG in that context HERE, so I want to focus this time on the way that the film illustrates Carpenter’s development as a narrative storyteller.

According to the behind-the-scenes documentary TALES FROM THE MIST, Carpenter and his producer/co-writer Debra Hill got the idea for THE FOG during a trip to England.  According to Hill, they visited Stonehenge on a particularly overcast morning and Carpenter asked, “What do you think’s in that fog?”  Within the rhetorical question the director apparently saw an opportunity to expand on the concept of amorphous evil at the core of HALLOWEEN.  In a 1980 Cinefantastique interview, he explained, “HALLOWEEN was a haunted house story, an attempt to do a horror film which incorporates all of the devices that you would expect from a horror film.  No need for an extensive plot—just pure evil on the loose on Halloween night.  We gave the evil form, and a reason to do what it does—and just let it go from there.  On the other hand, THE FOG is a ghost story….”

NASA photo of Stonehenge

THE FOG is about—to quote the subtitle of a supernatural horrorstory collection that I remember from my youth—a fabulous, formless darkness.  It’s about fear of the unknown, in the way that the best classical supernatural horror stories are about fear of the unknown. I am thinking of British Victorian storytellers like Charles Dickens (“The Signal-Man”), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Arthur Machen (“The Great God Pan”), M.R. James (“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”), and Henry James (The Turn of the Screw); and Americans like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.  Carpenter is thinking of many of these same writers, especially Machen (whose name is attributed to the campfire storyteller in THE FOG), Poe (who provides an epigraph for THE FOG), and Lovecraft, whose specter is never far from the director’s mind.  In fact, Carpenter said in 1979 that his main goal for THE FOG was to suggest the same “textures” in his film that Lovecraft suggested in his weird tales. 

In an extended essay called “Supernatural Horror inLiterature” (1927), Lovecraft explained his own sensibilities: “Our contemporary horror-tales specialize in events rather than atmospheric details, address the intellect rather than the impressionistic imagination, cultivate a luminous glamour rather than a malign tensity or psychological verisimilitude, and take a definite stand in sympathy with mankind and its welfare.  It has undeniable strength, and because of its ‘human element’ commands a wider audience than does the sheer artistic nightmare.  If not quite so potent as the latter, it is because a diluted product can never achieve the intensity of a concentrated essence.”

When John Carpenter set out to make THE FOG, he was going for the intensity of that “concentrated essence.”  Unfortunately, that proved to be easier said (written) than done (shown).  Lovecraft’s style of horror is pretty difficult to pull off in words, and it’s even more difficult to pull off in images.  Just think of all the film adaptations of Lovecraft’s work that have fallen short of the awesome weirdness of the source stories.  In 1979, when Carpenter was preparing THE FOG, there were only a few meager attempts by AIP: THE HAUNTED PALACE (nominally part of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle, but actually an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”), DIE MONSTER DIE! And THE DUNWICH HORROR.  There are things to enjoy about each of these films, about Carpenter has professed to being an admirer of Corman, but I’m still not convinced that any of these films provided much inspiration for THE FOG.

Carpenter has specifically cited a British monster movie called THE TROLLENBERG TERROR (a.k.a. THE CRAWLING EYE) as a major influence.  There are some similar shots of light and fog crawling underneath closed doors—along with similar emphases on elemental forces at work and a pervasive air of doom.  But I’m not convinced that TROLLENBERG was the biggest influence either.  

It seems to me that THE FOG, even more than HALLOWEEN, is a descendant of the Val Lewton tradition of horror cinema.  In 1980, Carpenter confessed as much, telling interviewer Bob Martin, “I wanted to do ISLE OF THE DEAD, or I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.  I love Lewton’s films—they’re very shadowy, all suggestion, and he has all sorts of melodrama going.  I was a real fan of that sort of thing, and that’s the sort of movie I initially shot.”

Carpenter goes on to say, however, that his plan didn’t work.   When he reviewed his initial rough cut of THE FOG, it was flat—because, he explained to interviewer Gilles Boulenger, it lacked both mythical backstory and shocking payoffs.  The filmmaker concluded (in 1980), “We’ve come a long way since Val Lewton.  […] I don’t mean to put down Val Lewton.  I just came to a point on THE FOG where I said, ‘They have seen ALIEN, HALLOWEEN, PHANTASM and a lot of other movies.  If my film is going to be viable in the marketplace, it’s got to compete with those.’

With an admirable sense of humility and responsibility for the integrity of his film, the director went to his investors at AVCO-Embassy and told them he needed to re-think and re-shoot.  Over the years, Carpenter has listed the sequences and story elements that were added to THE FOG after principal photography—and it’s quite a list!   There’s the prologue with John Houseman telling the campfire story; the Jamie Lee Curtis character and her interactions with Tom Atkins on the Sea Grass and later in the morgue; the climactic struggle between Adrienne Barbeau and the ghost-lepers on top of the lighthouse; as well as various “visceral shocks” and a touch of crowd-pleasing gore.  Carpenter also re-recorded his own score for the film, proclaiming his first attempt “very heavy-handed.”  

Re-watching the movie this week, I took mental note of all these re-shoot scenes.  From what I can tell, the added material comprises roughly half of the final 90-minute film.  So…. What was all the material that ended up on the cutting room floor?  I should probably go back and read Dennis Etchison’s novelization of THE FOG, because novelizations often include scenes that were removed from the final cut.  (In this particular case, however, Etchison has said he based his work on a nearly-finished cut of the film, rather than on a script, so there’s probably not much to be found there.)  I vaguely remember a few dream sequences in the novelization that weren’t in the finished film… but not much else.

If that first cut of THE FOG was more Lewton-esque than the finished film, I’d like to think that maybe it was more like Jacques Tourneur’s NIGHT OF THE DEMON (a.k.a. CURSE OF THE DEMON), which is—along with Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING—the apex of Lewton-esque horror.  Tourneur directed Lewton’s first three horror productions (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE LEOPARD MAN) and he applies everything he learned to NIGHT OF THE DEMON, creating a gorgeous expressionistic fantasy on the back of a surprisingly intellectual screenplay by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester (from a story by M.R. James).   

It’s worth pointing out that NIGHT OF THE DEMON begins with a voiceover (comparable to the campfire story in THE FOG) set against eerie footage of Stonehenge.  It then unfolds a narrative about belief vs. superstition.  As the story progresses, Tourneur does a remarkable job of undermining the rational hero’s—and the rational viewer’s—sense of reality.  Among movie geeks, the biggest debate is whether or not Tourneur should have shown the fire-demon onscreen, or (following Lewton’s example) left it to the viewer’s imagination. 

Night of the Demon (1957)
After his experience with THE FOG, I’m pretty sure Carpenter agrees with the decision to feature the demon…. although it’s worth adding that Tourneur’s film does so sparingly.  We see the fire-demon in the opening sequence, where it emerges from a supernatural billow of smoke and a soundscape of angry cicadas.  Then we spend the rest of the film anxiously anticipating another appearance--which doesn't happen until the final scene of the film.  As with many horror films, the climax can’t quite pay off to the build-up… but that’s just the nature of Lovecraftian—and Lewton-esque—horror (whether the filmmaker shows the monster onscreen or not).

THE FOG suffers a comparable fate.  In the end, Carpenter's film conveys the haunting beauty of the fabulous, formless darkness—although its mystique is diminished a bit by some added slasher-movie tropes.  When Blake’s party gets their “final cut,” I can't help feeling that Carpenter has completely abandoned the more subtle influences of CURSE OF THE DEMON and THE TROLLENBERG TERROR (both of which bet the farm on you’ve-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it monsters) in favor of E.C. Comics-style revenge zombies. 

As I said, I think THE FOG is a hell of a good movie—but it’s not the movie that Carpenter set out to make.  Perhaps for that reason, the director has always seemed to be a little bit disappointed with it.  As a fan of the filmmaker, however, I say it's all for the best—because it means that Carpenter kept working hard to develop his concept of amorphous evil in later films, especially the so-called Apocalypse Trilogy (THE THING, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS).  After the overwhelming success of HALLOWEEN, the director challenged himself to do something more ambitious and more difficult, instead of simply repeating what he knew worked.  Viewed within that context, THE FOG is a tantalizing prologue for things to come.  Carpenter has gathered us around the campfire to tell us about the true nature of evil.  But his story will take much longer than a single night to tell... 

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