Like his peers George Romero and Tobe Hooper, director John Carpenter was labeled a “modern master of horror” after one surprise hit film, even though he’s always had more to offer than just blood and guts. Carpenter unashamedly loves B-movies and pulp fiction, but also admires Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. During his ’70s/’80s heyday, he took whatever money he could get and turned out pictures with the look and soul of classic Hollywood — gore notwithstanding.
Carpenter’s 1980 supernatural thriller “The Fog” did well at the box office but was initially considered something of a letdown after the success of his and producer/co-writer Debra Hill’s 1978 slasher masterpiece, “Halloween.”
To be fair to the audiences of 38 years ago, “The Fog” isn’t as easy to “get” as “Halloween.” It’s a slow-building ensemble piece, set in a remote California coastal community. But time has been kind to the film, which today looks like an inspired reimagining of EC Comics, H.P. Lovecraft, and Hammer Horror.
The picturesque Antonio Bay is in the middle of celebrating its 100th anniversary when everything starts going fatally haywire. A local priest (played by Hal Holbrook) discovers documents that explain how the town was founded using a fortune seized from a ship on a mission of mercy. Now the ghosts of those well-meaning mariners are returning to claim what’s theirs, borne on a mysterious luminous mist — pervasive, and inexorable.
While the monsters take their time rolling in, “The Fog” introduces some of the town’s colorful characters: like the silky-voiced lighthouse keeper/jazz DJ Stevie Wayne, played by Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau; and the can-do mayor, Kathy Williams, played by Hitchcock favorite Janet Leigh.
Leigh’s real-life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis pops up too as free-spirited hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley, who catches the wrong ride at the wrong time. Even if Curtis is just in the movie to remind horror-hounds of “Halloween,” she’s likably earthy, and very different from the prim babysitter she played in her breakout role.
A good chunk of “The Fog” was reshot before it opened, after Carpenter and Hill watched their first cut and determined they’d made a movie too flat and bloodless to compete in the booming splatter market they’d helped create. They added a prologue that reframed the picture as a campfire ghost story, and threw in more explicit killing.
The film’s first half-hour plays like an extended version of the alien visitations from Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” with a lot of objects suddenly rattling, and lights flashing on and off. In the last two-thirds, Antonio Bay’s quaint charm is disrupted by ghosts with cargo hooks, skewering the citizenry.
Even when “The Fog” tries to give the post-“Halloween” crowd what they want, it’s clearly a different film. Stark, shadowy small-town America has been replaced by a windswept tourist-destination, aptly described by Stevie as “the top of the world” (and photographed in stunning widescreen by cinematographer Dean Cundey). Even Carpenter’s score is more elaborately orchestrated than his usual minimalist synthesizers.
In the decades since “The Fog” debuted, Carpenter’s made a wide enough variety of films — action, science-fiction, social satire and more — that this particular picture no longer seems like a departure. Ultimately, it’s a John Carpenter movie: concerned with group dynamics, unhelpful authority figures, strong women, the sins of the past, and that moment when helpless isolation shades into outright terror.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 26, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles