31 for 31: "The Fog"

For the whole month of October, our own Kevin Stairiker will be watching a horror movie a day and cataloging his findings in a new feature called “31 for 31.”


This entry begins with a simple fact: John Carpenter is a national treasure, and we don’t cherish him enough. Even if you’ve never seen one of his films (and if you’re reading this, you are not one of those people), the icy synth soundtracks he pioneered in a majority of his films still pervades modern horror, right up to and including the Netflix smash of this year, “Stranger Things.” And, side note, Carpenter is still out there making badass synth music to this day:

Anyway, on to the movie. “The Fog” is a bit of a red-headed step child in terms of Carpenter’s catalog. It wasn’t a genre-defining classic (“Halloween,” “The Thing”), it wasn’t a bombastic exploitation of said-classics (“They Live,” “Christine”) and it sure as hell doesn’t feature any Kurt Russell (“Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York”). What is does have, however, is dependable thrills, a spooky setting and fantastic directing.

“The Fog” is a bit of a mother-daughter dance for Carpenter, as it starts frequent muse Jamie Lee Curtis as well as her veteran actress mother Janet Leigh. The plot is simple: on the 100th anniversary of the seaside town Antonio Bay, an unearthly fog rises with a few hundred-year old stowaways riding the wave. Like any folk tale or myth, the movie is less reliant on twists and turns but rather the inevitable. How do you fight a fog? How do you fight ghosts that travel by fog? For the most part, you don’t.

“The Fog” also manages to fall into a very tiny horror niche that I can’t help but love: Radio DJ horror. Much like the twin unheralded films “Play Misty For Me” and “Pontypool,” “The Fog” revolves around a radio DJ who is terrorized but can’t help but feel a dedication to their listenership. One of the most memorable parts of the film is when DJ Stevie Wayne is cries out into her microphone for someone to save her son because she’s stuck with a program to host, dammit!

Movies like this work because a true pro only needs a few essential elements to scare people with. Author M.R. James published his five necessary structure points for a good ghost story in 1929, and there hasn’t been much of a need for an update since then.

  1. “The pretense of truth.” “The Fog” is based in a hundred year old ghost story about a California town on the coast. Most of the town’s people reject the tales as hogwash…and most of those people wind up dead by the end of the movie.
  2. “A pleasing terror.” The meaning of this entry has been somewhat lost over the decades, but I take it to mean that the storyteller leaves the audience with a scare that is singular and affirming to their sensibilities. This one is kind of obvious.
  3. “No gratuitous blood or sex.” This is probably the only of the five that Carpenter stretches a bit, as “The Fog” features numerous ghostly stabbings, though they are pretty light in comparison to some of his other films.
  4. “No explanation of the machinery.” Think of your favorite horror movies and characters. What’s scarier, when you know where and why something is coming or when you know nothing at all? In “the Fog,” the characters know that there’s a town anniversary but know nothing of where the titular fog is coming from, how people are ending up dead and why. Even by the end of the movie, when a few more answers are offered up, “The Fog” throws a few more wrenches in and leaves you wondering.
  5. “Those of the writer’s (and reader’s) own day.” What’s that classic campfire ghost story starting sentence? “Somewhere, in a town like this one, on a night much like this one…”

This entry got a little more clinical that I intended, but you get the idea. “The Fog” is underrated only because it’s surrounded by so much gold in Carpenter’s filmography. To wit, this was Carpenter’s first film after “Halloween” and was followed by “Escape from New York” and “The Thing.” It didn’t have much chance in its day, but there’s no better time to catch up.

By the numbers

Total deaths: 9
Scenes filled with sensual DJ banter: 3
Amount of times Elizabeth hitchhikes before meeting Nick: 11
“Fog” budget: $1.1 million
Quality remakes of “The Fog”: 0

Total movie death count: 153
Watched via: Google Play
Worth the watch? Yes
Arbitrary rating: 4/5 lighthouses that inexplicably also serve as radio stations

31 for 31 viewing list

31 for 31 viewing list

  1. Jeepers Creepers (2001)
  2. Cube (1997)
  3. White Zombie (1932)
  4. Demons (Dèmoni) (1985)
  5. Phantasm II (1988)
  6. Kuroneko (1968)
  7. Creepshow (1982) / Creepshow 2 (1987)
  8. 30 Days of Night (2007)
  9. Last Man on Earth (1964)
  10. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
  11. Cat People (1942)
  12. The Brood (1979)
  13. The Fog (1980)
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Kevin Stairiker is a features writer for Fly. He is a graduate of Temple University and enjoys writing in third person. When he isn't writing, he's probably playing guitar for a litany of bands, reading comics or providing well-needed muscle at The Double Deuce.

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