"Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?"
--Edgar Allan Poe
First, let me remind you that in America MGM originally released the DVD of John Carpenter's "The Fog" in standard definition. Sony owns MGM, and Sony makes Blu-ray. Studio Canal of France released the HD DVD edition reviewed here, so if you live in America and you want it, you'll have to import it from sources like Amazon.com France or Xploitedcinema.com. If you enjoy HD DVD, it might be worth your time and money, at least for the improved picture quality, if not for the sound.
Second, let me tell you that this film is a favorite of DVDTOWN's editor. So, while I don't care for it quite as much as he does, be aware that the final film score below is an average of his rating and mine.
Now, to the film: Late one midnight a grizzled old fisherman sits beside a fire on the beach, relating a ghost story to a group of children: One hundred years before, he tells them, "...on the twenty-first of April around the water off Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment they could see nothing, not a foot ahead of them. And then they saw a light.... They steered a course toward the light, but it was a campfire. The ship crashed against the rocks...and the wreckage sank with all the men aboard. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted, receded back across the ocean, and never came again. But people say when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea will rise up and search for the campfire that lead them to their dark and icy death."
Writer-director John Carpenter had just come off one of the biggest independent film successes in history, "Halloween" (1978), and studios were anxious for this new, young Hitchcock to duplicate his success. Although "The Fog" (1979) was the fourth movie Carpenter had ever made, it was in essence only his second major film, and expectations were high. Nevertheless, the results were merely so-so, especially in the film's first edit. Preview audiences didn't think it was scary enough, so Carpenter hurriedly re-shot several scenes, adding more shock and more obvious mayhem to the proceedings before the film's première. The reworking may have spiced it up, but I've always wondered what that original film must have been like.
In any case, "The Fog" was not nearly the hit "Halloween" had been, nor did it get particularly good reviews at the time of its release. But it has built up a loyal following in the ensuing decades, and a lot of folks will swear today it's their favorite horror flick. If you haven't seen it before, perhaps it's best not to anticipate too much; it's a good, old-fashioned ghost story, but in reality it's probably not much more than an upper-middling example of the breed. Still and all, on a dark and stormy night it might just bring a few shivers to the spine, and that's worth something, particularly watching the picture in high definition.
Carpenter keeps the movie moving along at a leisurely but steady pace, and the first half hour of the film is welcome and promising fun. It builds up an eerie, creepy, suspenseful mood by recounting the night the ghosts of the clipper ship return and seek their revenge on the little coastal community that caused their deaths a hundred years before. Unseen entities go bump in the night, and all kinds of weird nocturnal stuff start happening all over town--clocks stopping, electronics going haywire, glass suddenly shattering, that sort of thing. While the second half hour seems more sluggish and doesn't continue to build the tension as strongly as the beginning did, and while the final half hour doesn't provide nearly the payoff we'd hope for, these last two-thirds aren't entirely disastrous, just a letdown.
Another minor concern is that the film can never make up its mind who its lead character is. Ostensibly, it's Adrienne Barbeau as Stevie Wayne, a lady who owns a small radio station that she runs from a lighthouse. But because Jamie Lee Curtis is also in the cast and because she was the big star of "Halloween," she gets top billing in all the ads, and her part as a drifting, hitchhiking artist gets more attention than necessary. Jamie Lee's real-life mother, Janet Leigh (of "Psycho" fame), is also in the cast as the chairwoman of the town's centennial celebration. John Houseman, who normally portrayed urbane, sophisticated, intellectual characters, here plays against type by doing his bit as Mr. Machen, the old seafarer who tells the ghost story to the kids. Hal Holbrook plays an alcoholic priest (Holbrook always plays either a priest or a politician; he's got these parts nailed down), who finds his grandfather's journal recounting the shipwreck and the town's complicity in its sinking. And Tom Atkins plays a local resident who picks up Jamie Lee, starts a romance, and investigates the mysterious happenings.
It's the fog, however, that's the real star of the show. It creeps in and around the shoreline and buildings of the community like some serpentine reptile. This fog is not always as smoothly rendered as it might be by today's special effects people, but in most scenes it looks realistic enough. The fog is more realistic, I might add, than the ghosts themselves, who, with wormhole faces, come with the mist and appear too much like comic-book pirates, brandishing knives, swords, and hooks.
The real problem for me was that Carpenter's afterthought additional violence doesn't really make the story any the more scary, just more violent. I suspect the film may have relied more on suspense than on shock before the director started tinkering around with it, which is why I would have loved seeing the first edit. Now, the film seems a bit too heavyhanded to be frightening.
"The Fog" compares easily to Carpenter's "Halloween" in its initial mood, thanks in part to the very similar music Carpenter composed for both films. It also compares to both "The Birds" and "Jaws" in design as it slowly builds toward a horrific outcome. Finally, I don't think the late Gene Siskel would have approved of the film's child-in-danger angle, but how could Carpenter resist?
The Studio Canal engineers do a good job retaining most of the film's 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio, and the video quality is far better than MGM's rather soft, blurred image. However, since the movie was something of a low-budget affair, and the story is set mostly at night, it's very dark most of the time, and the HD reproduction tends to emphasizes the inevitable grain that comes with nighttime shooting. Colors in broad daylight are excellent, though, and close-ups, especially, are finely detailed. Hues are rich, deep, and vibrant, although maybe too intense in some scenes for ultimate reality, noticeable in facial tones, mainly, that are sometimes too reddish. This could be a condition of the original print as well, as Carpenter uses a variety of weird lighting techniques in the film. Aside from the grain inherent in the original print and a couple of instances of minor moiré effects, the screen is exceptionally clean and sharp. Indoor set shots are near perfect, and the coastal photography is beautiful.
The sound on MGM's standard-definition disc was nothing to write home about, but it showed up somewhat better than what I heard here. The problem as I see it is that the HD DVD's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tends to overemphasize everything I disliked about the SD's sound in the first place. The main issue is that the upper midrange is too forward, giving the sonics a bright, hard, edgy feeling, with voices often pinched and sour. The forward midrange, a tonal balance that too greatly favors the high end, a general lack of deepest bass, a narrow stereo spread, and hardly any surround information produces a mediocre result at best. Fortunately, things are somewhat salvaged by the rear channels finally coming to life toward the end of the film with some wind noise and a climactic cataclysm.
As usual, Studio Canal offer little in the way of extras on their HD DVD. For them, the movie is the thing. Perhaps it has something to do with their getting the rights to the movie but not the rights to any bonus items. In any case, what we get are English and French spoken languages; English, Danish, Swedish, German, Finnish, French, and other subtitles; a pair of audio and video calibration tests; some on-screen information; twelve scene selections, but no chapter insert; and a studio promotional trailer.
Frankly, I was more attracted by Dean Cundey's splendid photography of the Northern California coastline than I was by the movie. It was filmed in a few of my wife's and my favorite spots: Point Reyes, the Point Reyes lighthouse, Point Reyes Station, and Inverness, CA, on Tomales Bay in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. This is a short drive from Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed "The Birds," and wouldn't you know it, Carpenter includes at least one shot of the former Tides Wharf on Bodega Bay. A trip up California's Highway 1 makes for some rewarding film history, by the way. Besides "The Fog" and "The Birds," there have been many other films made along the Northern California coast, including "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," made in Fort Bragg; "Same Time, Next Year," in Mendocino; "Foul Play" in Stinson Beach; and the Bruce Willis-Billy Bob Thornton comedy, "Bandits," filmed in part at Nick's Cove and other areas near Tomales Bay.
But I digress. As I was saying, "The Fog" is a mildly entertaining ghost story with a few moderately gruesome but effective scenes. It relies mainly on atmosphere for its chills, which is a good thing, but it doesn't quite deliver as many genuine moments of fright as the true horror fan might like.
Let me conclude with two tips for the day: (1) Never, ever, leave a beautiful young woman alone in a room with her back turned on a dead body; and (2) when somebody tells you to stay away from the door on a foggy night, for heaven's sake, stay away from the door! "The Fog" may not be the greatest horror movie of all time, but it is definitely instructive, and its HD picture, at least, is worth watching.