It’s Halloween, which means it’s the last day you can obsessively watch scary movies until tomorrow and the day after that. Obviously, one of the greatest Halloween films of all time is John Carpenter’s seminal slasher named after the holiday. As a follow-up, Carpenter eked together another small budget classic with co-writer and producer Debra Hill: 1980’s The Fog.
While it was a horror film at its core, it was a decidedly different movie. Instead of being a simple stalker film, The Fog is a throwback feature to the older ghost story movies from the 40s and 50s that Carpenter watched as a kid. It may not hold up as well as Halloween, but The Fog is still a fun relic made during Carpenter’s heyday (which included 1981’s Escape from New York and 1982’s The Thing).
Recorded shortly after Carpenter shot his 1995 stinker Village of the Damned, the commentary on the original DVD release features Carpenter and Hill reminiscing about the production that appears larger than it actually was.
The Fog (1980)
Commentators: John Carpenter (director, co-writer), Debra Hill (producer, co-writer)
1. It was Hill’s idea to open the film with the quote from Edgar Allan Poe: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”
2. The idea for the film came about when Hill and Carpenter were in England visiting Stonehenge. They saw a fog bank just sitting on the water in the distance, and Carpenter said to Hill, “What if there was something in the fog?” This was added to a real-life story of a ship loaded down with gold that sunk off the coast of California.
3. The lighthouse locations were shot in Point Reyes, California, which was chosen for its look and general moodiness. It turns out that this happens to be the second foggiest point in America, with the first being Nantucket Island.
4. Carpenter plays the janitor at the church in the beginning of the film. He felt he was so terrible in the role that he stopped acting in his movies except for “helicopter pilots and walk-ons.” (Carpenter also acted in Body Bags, but he doesn’t think that counts because he played a dead guy.)
5. The original budget was around $900,000. However, because this followed David Cronenberg’s Scanners, the production decided to add some more to the scares. Reshoots for more violent kills pushed the budget to approximately $1.1 million and had to be completed in a month to deliver the final film.
6. Debra Hill was in charge of the establishing shots of Antonio Bay as the second unit. She lit these shots with ambient lighting, flashlights, and the headlights of a station wagon.
7. The film’s 30-day schedule started on a full moon and ended on a full moon.
8. The original attack on the boat had very little overt violence, and the ghosts were not actually seen. This was changed in reshoots to the scene used in the film.
9. Hill claims there were three ways they created the fog. Dry ice and fog machines were employed, but she cannot remember the third technique. Of course, she might be talking about real fog, which can actually be seen in several wide shots of the countryside around Point Reyes. “Nature” as a production method.
10. Most of the ghosts in the film are played by various grips and Tommy Lee Wallace, the film’s production designer and film editor. The lead ghost Blake at the end is played by special effects master Rob Bottin, who later went on to work with Carpenter on The Thing.
11. Making Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) the DJ of a jazz station helped with the moodiness of the film, but the decision was made because it was too expensive to get the royalties for rock music.
12. Barbeau was an avid non-smoker, but Carpenter had her character smoke because he was paying tribute to the leading ladies in Howard Hawks films, who often smoked.
13. The name of the ship that sunk was the Elizabeth Dane, which is partially named after one of Carpenter’s old girlfriends.
14. While shooting the scenes of Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis on a boat in the ocean, Carpenter got terribly seasick and describes this as the worst day of shooting in his career.
15. The spiral staircase in the lighthouse for the KAB studio was from the set of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which the production found in storage.
16. The scene in the bar right before the festival kicks off, which required Janet Leigh to cry, was shot 14 times for technical reasons. Leigh cried for each take.
17. Many of the locals, who can be seen as extras in the festival scenes, were thrilled to have Janet Leigh visiting the town. At one point, Carpenter used her to charm a restaurant owner who wanted to close down during a late night of shooting.
18. Debra Hill can be seen on camera in the outdoor shot of the festival-goers at the docks, while Janet Leigh is in the foreground talking to the mayor.
19. The shot of the fog engulfing Atkins’ truck in the center of town was shot in reverse because the production was unable to get the fog to roll in. Instead, the fog was allowed to dissipate as the truck was driven into town.
Best in Commentary
- Carpenter: “It’s funny to watch these movies right now. They seem so innocent. At the time, I recall, we would always receive lots of criticism for being the makers of horror films. It’s funny how times change.”
- Hill: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if there’s a knock at the door, and it’s at night, you don’t open the door.”
- Hill: “I don’t think we even paid Tommy to be in this movie as an actor.” Carpenter: “And he’ll never let me forget it.”
Even though John Carpenter hasn’t made a really strong film since In the Mouth of Madness in 1995, I’m a huge fan of his work from the 70s up until that point. The Fog is not his strongest film, but it’s a lot of fun to re-watch from time to time. Carpenter and Hill’s commentary on the short movie (which runs just under 90 minutes) is informative and offers a decent mix of stories from the set and trivia about how things were done back then.
Carpenter falls into narration at times, but they quickly get back to the more trivial and interesting elements of the movie. Of particular note is how they describe the low-budget challenges of making this movie (which should have had a higher budget, considering the monster success of Halloween) and the poor man’s techniques they had to use throughout the film.
Carpenter and Hill also spend a lot of time talking about how the movie was made in the editing room, often pointing out which scenes included reshoots for more effective horror movie kills and scares. More than anything, this shows how even the low-budget horror fare from more than 30 years ago was beholden to reshoots and post-production tinkering.