This blog was written as part of the John Carpenter Week at Radiator Heaven.

The Movie

The Fog (1980) is often overlooked when discussion turns to the best of John Carpenter, yet it is something of an underrated gem, snuggled between the more successful Halloween and Escape from New York.  As a great lover of traditional ghost stories, however, I have always ranked The Fog as my favourite Carpenter movie. It was the very first horror movie that I bluffed my way into a cinema to see, and it scared the hell out of me. I ended up sitting next to the closed door, in the dark, at the bottom of the auditorium. Bad placing in this movie, trust me. Ghost stories are always best kept simple, with simple scares, and The Fog obeys this rule eloquently.

Antonio Bay, a small coastal town in California, is about to celebrate its centennial.  However, on the eve of celebration the town priest discovers a dark secret about the founding of Antonio Bay and the curse that has been put upon it. Then the fog rolls in and brings something else with it, looking for revenge for a 100-year-old crime.

Big on atmosphere and complemented by one of Carpenter’s finest soundtracks, The Fog is a glorious exercise in plain, old-fashioned spooky.  Made on a shoestring budget, not unusual for a Carpenter movie, it wasn’t the easiest of productions. Carpenter has admitted that the first cut of The Fog was hugely disappointing, even going so far as to state, ‘This was the lowest point I had come to in my professional career’. Together with his editor Tommy Lee Wallace, he set about shooting additional material, including a new opening scene.

The Scene

Antonio Bay, 11:55pm on the 20th April. Old sea dog Mr. Madchen is entertaining (or scaring the hell out of) a group of children with ghost stories around the campfire. They are five minutes away from the Bay’s cenntenial, and Mr. Madchen has one more story to tell. This one is close to home…

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Why I Love It

Storytelling

The great pleasure of the ghost story is the simple act of telling, or being told, one. Storytelling, around a glowing fire at night, is one of man’s oldest activities. Few movies convey that simple pleasure, and no movie has done a better job than The Fog. Dear old John Houseman, who would tell more ghost stories the following year in the aptly titled Ghost Story, has the kind of tranquil, seasoned voice that could make any story come alive. He certainly does this one justice, even going so far as to make us jump with his fob watch. It certainly got me the first time around, in that darkened cinema, and just look at those wide-eyed kids! Bastard!

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Wide-eyed Kids

There’s a moment, as the kids sit there rapt and attentive, that always makes me smile. Mr. Madchen tells them that the drowned crew of the Elizabeth Dane will come back and look for the campfire that drew them to their deaths. At that moment, they all cast nervous glances to the fire they are sitting beside. A little moment of Spielberg-worthy magic.

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Music

John Carpenter has always been a curious rarity as a filmmaker. Not only does he direct and, more often than not, write his movies but he also composes and performs the soundtracks. I consider The Fog to be Carpenter’s finest work in this area. He uses his synth piano keys sparingly in this opening scene, subtly enhancing the atmosphere. As a backing to Houseman’s fireside tale, it is perfectly eerie.

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The Title Shot

As Mr. Madchen finishes his story, we pan up to see a view of Antonio Bay. Carpenter uses the lonely sounds of a deserted beach, with the wind and the town clock chimes, to chilling effect. And just look at that place. Dark and foreboding, would you want to be there? Not exactly cosy, is it? There is something intrinsically unsettling about a deserted, isolated beach at night. At least there is to me. It is the perfect setting for a ghost story, and Carpenter uses it masterfully in this opening scene.

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Mr. Madchen’s Story

‘Eleven fifty-five. Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before twelve, just to keep us warm. In five minutes it will be the 21st of April.

One hundred years ago on the 21st of April, out in the waters around 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. My God, it was a fire burning on the shore. Strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks. The hull sheared in two. The mast snapped like a twig. And the wreckage sank with all the men aboard.

At the bottom of the sea lay the Elizabeth Dane with her crew, their lungs filled with salt water, their eyes open and staring into the darkness. And above, as suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted, receded back across the ocean and never came again. But it is told by the fishermen and their fathers and grandfathers that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point, will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark, icy death.

Twelve o’clock. The 21st of April.’

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They say the best movie soundtracks are the ones that you don’t notice are there. They feature music that enhances a film but never tries to compete for your attention. That’s all well and good, but personally I like the soundtracks that do both; the music that you find yourself humming later on and then buy because it is good enough to survive on its own.

I’ve been listening to soundtracks for as long as I’ve been watching movies, and that’s a long time. Sometimes I’ll listen because the music is excellent in its own right, sometimes because it’s just great music to daydream to, and sometimes because a particular score is the perfect inspiration for the writing of a screenplay. I once wrote an entire script around the music to a single scene in Aliens. Thanks for that, Mr James Horner.

Selecting a paltry five soundtracks from the plethora I admire was no easy task but eventually, after much hand-wringing and begging for forgiveness from the aforementioned James Horner, I settled on my Top Five. These are the soundtracks which I believe best represent the art in all its forms; as beautiful music in its own right, as the perfect enhancement to the story and visuals, and as examples of craftsmen at the top of their game.

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Alien – Jerry Goldsmith

1979

Long considered one of the most successful and enduring movie composers of all time, Jerry Goldsmith has been around since the Fifties and continues to work sporadically today. The story of his music for Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of disagreements and disappointments, but there is no denying the beauty of his work for the classic Sci-Fi/Horror movie. Hired by Scott at the ‘suggestion’ of 20th Century Fox, Goldsmith and the director clearly had differing ideas about how the movie should be scored. As a result, much of the music Goldsmith wrote was omitted from the final cut of Alien. The romantic, sweeping and eerie theme originally written was rejected by Scott and replaced by the composer’s second effort; a simple series of unnerving sounds which, it must be said, are extremely effective. Scott also chose to use a pre-existing piece of classical music for the end credits, further alienating Goldsmith. The original score is available in its entirety, but what remains within the film is deeply unsettling, beautiful and dark. Elements of his original opening theme survive in scenes where the Nostromo lands and takes off, making the process of landing a spaceship seem like an adventure in itself. And, taking the title of the movie to heart, Goldsmith creates ugly, unnatural sounds whenever the creature appears. Don’t ask me what they are, I prefer not knowing.

See also: Chinatown, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Omen.

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Edward Scissorhands – Danny Elfman

1990

The fourth collaboration between composer Elfman and director Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands remains one of the most influential scores of the last twenty years. Elfman began his career in film by scoring his older brother Richard’s movie, Forbidden Zone, and soon after began his creative relationship with Burton working on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Utilising a 79 piece orchestra and a choir, the music for Edward Scissorhands is rich, dreamlike and perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet themes of Burton’s most personal film to date. In addition, Elfman creates a hilarious tick-tock theme for the bland suburbia into which Edward appears, and a signature bombastic march which touches on the near insanity of the inventor (Vincent Price) and his bizarre machines. Elfman and Burton represent a perfect understanding between director and composer, and even if Burton’s work isn’t always accomplished, Elfman’s usually is. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and it is a measure of this soundtrack’s success that its music-box chimes and soulful choral voices have become the signature sound for fairy tales and Chanel advertisements ever since. It has even been adapted into a ballet.

See also: Midnight Run, Batman Returns and Big Fish.

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The Fog – John Carpenter

1980

John Carpenter has always been a curious rarity as a filmmaker. Not only does he direct and, more often than not, write his movies but he also composes and performs the soundtracks. Not even Spielberg can do that (all praise His name). So, as sole creator of every component, Carpenter’s synth-based scores have always been the perfect accompaniments to the action on the screen. Often using a heartbeat thump as the base, Carpenter’s soundtracks heighten the tension considerably. His most famous is probably Halloween, but my personal favourite has always been The Fog. Carpenter uses very little in enhancing the eerie atmosphere of his coastal ghost story, but every fog horn sound and every light stoke of piano key burrows deep under the skin, priming the viewer for the experience. The thumping sound as the fog rolls into Antonio Bay mimics the pounding on doors, the noise which announces the spectres before they strike. It is one of the greatest horror movie scores of all time, by a composer who fully understands the genre. Carpenter’s band, The Coup De Villes, also provided the somewhat cheesy tunes which play on the radio, or serve as jingles for the KAB Radio station.

See also: Halloween, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China.

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Jaws – John Williams

1975

If you mention Jaws in conversation, one of the first things that will come to mind is the theme tune. Dum dum dum dum, etc and so forth. Effective and iconic as that theme is, it sometimes results in the rest of the soundtrack being overlooked. This is a shame because, beyond the ominous strings which more than compensate for the killer shark’s rather rubbery presence, Jaws enjoys one of the most accomplished scores in cinema history. John Williams has been working in the industry for half a century, and is responsible for some of cinema’s most recognisable theme tunes, including Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Jaws marked Williams’ first collaboration with Spielberg, a collaboration that has now spanned 35 years and 19 movies. By turns haunting, joyous, foreboding and terrifying, Jaws is a master class in writing music to accentuate the moving image. Williams’ strings make the ocean seem filled with dread, he quietly adds atmosphere to Quint’s tale of the USS Indianapolis, and the cheerful sea shanty which accompanies the Orca’s doomed pursuit of the Great White strikes a gloriously upbeat note in the midst of the peril. It was the perfect start to such a successful collaboration.

See also: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Schindler’s List.

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The Mission – Ennio Morricone

1986

The chances are there is at least one Ennio Morricone score that you love, and probably more. Morricone has been producing music for film for over 50 years, across a diverse range of genre and language. He gained wide acclaim for his work with Sergio Leone on the Spaghetti Westerns of the Sixties and managed to write a score for John Carpenter’s The Thing which sounded like a Carpenter score. However, when I hear the name Morricone I immediately think of one movie: The Mission. Roland Joffé’s story of Spanish Jesuit missionaries in 18th century South America, and their struggles with the Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments, was graced with some of the most beautiful music ever composed for film. Morricone mixes classical Baroque orchestra, South American Guaraní instruments, Spanish guitars and haunting choirs to magnificent and often heartbreaking effect. The emotional punch of Morricone’s work even filters down to the simple tune which Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) plays on his oboe, a tune later reprised with full orchestra for the track On Earth As It Is In Heaven, which is breathtaking.

See also: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Untouchables and Once Upon a Time in America.

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The Also Rans:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – James Horner, The Bourne Identity – John Powell, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, Psycho – Bernard Herrmann, Solaris – Cliff Martinez.

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