A second review requested by Kent H, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

For a while there at the start of his career, John Carpenter was making some truly admirable choices. After directing the most profitable movie in history in the form of 1978's ur-slasher Halloween, he could easily have pursued the path of least resistance and cranked out clones of that movie until his audience left in disgust. Instead, his first big project after Halloween was the epic-scale television biopic Elvis. Better still, when he returned to horror immediately after that with The Fog in 1980, it was a completely different approach to the genre than he'd succeeded with before, using some of the same tricks in new iterations, but otherwise creating something tonally distinctive from Halloween. It nevertheless still feels like a Carpenter film, as we know it now, or as it was just starting to shape up in '80. The question remains whether The Fog is necessarily successful, but given that it was merely one year more before Carpenter would dive right into craven money-chasing as the producer, writer, and reshoot director of Halloween II, I'm inclined to look warmly on this earnest attempt to challenge himself and his audience.

The Fog is a certain something that didn't get made all that often at that point in history: a pure-blooded ghost story. In fact, the movie's opening scene (added late in its production, to its incalculable benefit) is designed to explicitly call our attention to that fact: it presents a bearded, pleasant old man, Mr. Machen (John Houseman), whipping up a spooky campfire story to scare the bejesus out of a flock of school kids. The time is five till midnight on the night of 20 April, 1980, and the place is a little California coastal town called Antonio Bay. And Mr. Machen's story is basically The Fog itself: in order to freak out the children, he's telling them the horrible true story of their own town, and the mysterious curse left by the unquiet dead, who will surely come back some day to wreak vengeance. It is that vengeance that we'll be primarily concerned about for the rest of the film's gratifyingly tidy 89 minutes, starting with a series of baffling events that happen around town between midnight and 1:00 in the morning.

There's really not much plot to deal with in all of that, just iterations of characters. The most important of these, narratively speaking, is the alcoholic Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), the grandson of the founding pastor at the church in Antonio Bay 100 years earlier; he's the one who finds his grandfather's diary during the chaos of the witching hour (it's essentially spat out of a mortar wall), and thus learns that the Antonio Bay founding fathers weren't given the fortune as a bequest from the late Mr. Blake, as the traditional story has it. Instead, those selfsame fathers were so disgusted by Blake's leprosy, and his desire to live with his fellow sufferers on the mainland, just about a mile from Antonio Bay, that they tricked him into wrecking his ship, and then stealing the fortune. Malone, therefore, is uniquely well-equipped to figure out what motivates the terrors about to befall the town, but he's locked up high atop a hill outside town in his church, presumably drinking.

That means that we end up spending more time with an array of characters, of whom the most beloved by near-universal consent of everyone I've ever discussed the film with and every review I've ever read, is Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), a transplant from Chicago who owns the radio station KAP, broadcasting from the old lighthouse on the coast. She is, quite literally, the voice of the movie, her warm, sensual tones poring out from every other location and providing guidance from her unique vantage point as shit goes hairy. Other people we ought to know include Stevie's son Andy (Ty Mitchell), the child who was most fixedly listening to the campfire story at the start; local fella Nick Castle (Tom Atkins), who picks up a hitchhiker, Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis); and Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh), chairperson of the Antonio Bay birthday festivities, and whose husband (John F. Goff) is one of three fisherman out on the Pacific at night between midnight and 1:00, listening to Stevie's cool, reassuring description of the fog bank rolling right in towards them. And wotta fog bank! It glows white, and rises from the water in a most unconventional, inexplicable way, as well it might, since it is a ghost fog, and it is home to a sailing ship a century out of date, crewed by several shadowy figures with hooks and swords and all kinds of nastiness. The three fishermen end up dead, and all day on 21 April, odd things keep happening, and as night creeps on, the fog comes back...

The reality of the situation is that The Fog is not tremendously great. I wish it was - it's so close! Carpenter's career includes a run of five consecutive theatrically-released features, from his 1976 sophomore effort Assault on Precinct 13 through his 1982 sci-fi horror masterwork The Thing, that is among the strongest such runs ever turned out by a mainstream filmmaker. The Fog lies within that run; it is also, almost without question, the weakest film of the five. "Least among equals" is a uniquely frustrating place for anything to end up, and every time I watch The Fog, I have the exact same experience of being sucked in by the first hour, only to spend the last half-hour mentally cataloguing all of the things that aren't quite working and that I wish could have been tweaked or replaced or re-thought, at least enough to put this on par with Escape from New York (a more accomplished film of less creativity). Part of it is rough story writing in the script that Carpenter and his regular producer Debra Hill co-wrote: the way the town's birthday party fizzles away and no character from that plotline other than Kathy and her assistant Sandy (Nancy Loomis) end up interacting with the rest of the movie in any way whatsoever carves a very obvious hollow spot into the movie right at the point that it should feel like the noose is tightening. More pervasively, Father Malone's entire subplot is so convenient in ways that smack of wanting too badly for everything to make perfect sense, rather than trusting the thick, uncanny mood to carry us through. Maybe it is the impulse Hitchcock followed with Vertigo, letting the air out of the "twist" early on, so we didn't have to waste time wondering. That would make sense, in a fashion: this is Carpenter's most Hitchcockian film, most obviously in the presence of Leigh (appearing for the first time with her daughter Curtis) and the setting in a snoozy California fishing town, a nod to The Birds that would be tempting even if the town of Bodega Bay didn't crop up in The Fog's dialogue. Still, Father Malone Explains It All fits uncomfortably with the horrifying unknowable quality of the fog itself, a conceit in which the thing that is scariest is not being able to figure out what's going on.

Simply put, the fog pirates - they're in no meaningful way "pirates", but damn me if that's not exactly what the imagery suggests - are scariest when they're least distinct and explicable, and the process of The Fog is the process of making them ever more concrete. How much scarier it is when they simply whisk the babysitter Mrs. Kobritz (Regina Waldon) into their impenetrably opaque wall of mist, than when Father Malone squares off against them, with their glowing red eyes (the glowing red eyes almost work - they are quite creepy, but they needed to be introduced sooner. As it is, they arrive right at the point in the story that the main ghost starts to get a personality, of sorts, and so the presence of eyes has an unfortunate taming effect).

But if I linger on these flaws, it is only because The Fog's weaknesses are so unnecessary, in comparison to its strengths. For its first hour, and intermittently thereafter, this is a truly magnificent ghost story. The fog itself is a remarkable image, slowly filling space so implacably that in many shots, it simply appears to coalesce out of nothingness. For a low-budget film, the fog effects are note-perfect, with even their obvious fakeness in certain points contributing to an otherworldly sense rather than ruining the illusion. And that's not the only great image Carpenter and his irreplaceable cinematographer, Dean Cundey, provide for the film - shot for shot, this might even be a better-looking film than Halloween, with its handsome, landscape-portrait approach to presenting Antonio Bay as a self-isolating place out of time, and the exaggerated stillness of the nighttime exteriors, perfectly capturing the sense of closeness on a damp spring night with an uncomfortable haze in the air. In a few shots, light pouring out of windows acts as a high-contrast bulwark against that feeling, but not for those of us in the audience, and it makes it even more solemn and eerie. And there are plenty of terrific compositions, besides: a couple times the filmmakers borrow their own great two-level "corpse comes back to life" shot in Halloween, with a character in the foreground not noticing the out-of-focus paranormal activity in the background. Mostly, there's just a really solid idea of how to use the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to focus on people within highly descriptive, personalised spaces, or people in relationship to people, or people in relationship to the empty space that the film very quickly trains us to recognise as terrible news.

For all that, The Fog is a movie to hear more than a movie to see. A big part of that is Stevie's radio show, an anchoring presence throughout the movie that feels more than a little like the music in American Graffiti; much of it is the way that the sound team capture the way that nighttime - and fog at nighttime doubly so - has a tendency to flatten distance and amplify every noise, making us hyper-aware of what we're hearing because there is no ability to see things. It oscillates between messy noise and horrible, menacing stillness quite effectively, and invariably, the scariest parts of the movie are the ones where we're straining to hear anything. In fact, I am quite comfortable declaring that insofar as The Fog is effectively scary at all - and it's at the very least entertainingly spooky in the way of a good childhood ghost story; if it weren't for the abrupt jabs of (thoroughly non-gory) violence, and the aftermath of a sex scene, I'd call this Carpenter's attempt at doing a horror film that parents can watch with their kids - it is mostly because of how effectively the soundscape rips us this way and that, far more than even the most effective moments where the barely-discernible shape of a human emerges from the fog.

This does, again, step on itself in unnecessary ways: like many a ghost story, it grows more pedestrian the more its ghosts remain present and the clearer their motivation, and long stretches of nothing punctuated by quick jabs are inherently better at keeping us tense and afraid than long onslaughts of the same stimulus. All of which is to say that when Carpenter starts to turn the final act into Rio Bravo - not the first and certainly not the last time one of his movies would be in dialogue with that Howard Hawks classic - he also hobbles its ability to be as good at horror as it has been. Also, the film suffers a bit from having only one stand-out character: but my God, is Stevie terrific. Just on the basis of this one performance, it's amazing that Adrienne Barbeau didn't have a better career. Her work her is subtle and fast, as we watch her transform into the sultry, Sexy Mom persona of her radio persona, and immediately become the harried mother and small business owner that she is all day every day the second the mike is off. She's resourceful and direct, exuding competence without quite the confidence to do much with it; her steady breakdown from rock-solid professional to nervous human being to terrified mother during the final night's onslaught is amazing, and her cautious-but-not-exactly-"scared" response to the fog as it starts to infiltrate her station is a remarkably interesting character beat. Not bad for a character and actor who spends most of her time alone onscreen; by all logic, Stevie should be the most sedate part of the movie, but during the cross-cutting in the finale, it's the other way around, and the tension noticeably eases off when we leave her side.

The human element isn't quite there, outside of Stevie; and while Halloween was able to use its stock characters to drive the feeling that it's some kind of fable, The Fog's ghost story conceit isn't quite as able to withstand how Elizabeth and Nick are basically non-entities, or that Malone and Kathy are basically jokes. Still, as an exercise in creating vignettes of spooky terror, The Fog works, even if the whole is certainly no more than the sum of its parts. It's tremendously well-shot, often edited with the precision of a stopwatch (the disappearance of the ghosts at 1:00 AM the morning of the 21st is a wonderful shift in momentum), and the sound is on fire even the rest isn't - it's purely through inexplicable sound (a ghost voice warping its way onto a pre-recorded tape) that the film is able to wring a good scene of tension from a banal daylit space. It is not the best of Carpenter, but The Fog is a completely solid piece of horror filmmaking that's only slightly undone by its flaws as a piece of horror storytelling, and at its best, it can rank alongside any movie about ghosts ever made.