Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 13 October 2005
Source MGM DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Fresh off the unexpected success of Halloween, John Carpenter and co-writer / producer Debra Hill wanted to make a second scary movie, but knew that another suburban slasher wasn’t going to cut it. They needed a new angle, a new nemesis. According to the dusty annals of horror history, the sought-after inspiration came on a trip to England, when John and Debra found themselves staring at a disconcerting fog bank rolling across the desolate moors. It was a thick, illumined mist, seemingly concealing something loathsome behind its wisps of cloud. “I wonder what’s in that fog?” John reportedly asked. And so the idea was born: a film centered on a roiling, all-consuming fog endowed with an unspeakable evil—the tangible, visceral horror of Michael Myers replaced by an amorphous, creeping dread.
Carpenter and Hill knew that the successful implementation of such an ephemeral idea—and the subsequent enchantment of their viewers—required the quick establishment of a believable ghost-story atmosphere. And so they open the film with a gaggle of wide-eyed youngsters ranged on the beach round a roaring campfire enraptured by a spooky supernatural saga. Spinning the yarn is none other than John Houseman, his soothing, yet authoritative voice the perfect vehicle to dramatize the tale of the Elizabeth Dane, a local fishing craft lost to the sea nigh on one hundred years ago. It seems that the men of the Dane found themselves beset by an unholy fog, and, spotting a pale glow radiating from what they presumed to be a lighthouse, made way for land. As it happened, however, and as the men discovered too late, the light from the shore was in truth a devious campfire, lit to lure the men to their deaths on the crags of the rocky shore. All hands of the Elizabeth Dane were lost.
As the children, and the viewers, listen in rapt attention, Houseman brings his tale to a close, summarizing the local legend that someday, when the unnatural fog once again rolls in to cover Antonio Bay, the men of the Dane will rise from their wat’ry tombs, and seek revenge on those that lead them astray, more than likely heading for the first shoreline campfire they set their ghoulish eyes on. As the story ends, we know that the fog will soon be rising, and the eternal evil is close at hand. Thus without flashy special effects, gratuitous killing sequences, or tawdry scare chords, is the perfect ghost story mood created—within mere moments, Carpenter draws us into his eldritch tale.
The colorful narrative that follows efficiently builds on this initial horror set up, offering us more and more details about the deceased sailors and their presumed purpose in returning to Antonio Bay, while simultaneously introducing us to an enjoyable ensemble cast. We meet a hard-drinking priest and watch as he discovers the role his ancestor played in the aforementioned misguiding-campfire ruse; we observe an instantaneous love affair spring up between a tough-as-nails trucker and a luckless hitchhiking lass; we listen to the soporific strains of the local disc jockey as she whiles away her lonely evenings atop the desolate Antonio Bay lighthouse; and we follow in the footsteps of the town’s resident activities director as she prepares the locals for the Bay’s centennial celebration. Although the horror story proper—angry ghosts seek revenge—is an admittedly simple tale, this disparate group of characters effectively balances and enlivens the story, and assures that the film never stagnates.
Although Carpenter, after viewing the first rough cut of the picture and deciding it needed more tangible horror, went back and shot some new sequences (including a great moment of wraith assailment high atop the lighthouse), for the most part the picture remains free from a reliance on close-ups and visceral gore in the weaving of its horror spell. We see shadowy figures moving at the edges of our vision; we watch as the illumined fog slinks along the shoreline, up the deserted streets and alleys, and resolutely encircles our heroes; we see skeletal hands rapping out portents of doom on the doors of the town, but for the bulk of the film, we remain blissfully shielded from any concrete exposure to those inhabiting the fog, what they want, and when they will cease their fury. Half-baked legends, unsubstantiated hints, the occasional rotting hand grasping from the murky edges of the screen, and the fanciful surmises of a besotted man of the cloth are all we get—just enough to draw us into the haunting mood of this brooding tale of terror, and—like the best of ghost stories—stir our imaginations to construct the latent horror of all that we never see.