Saturday, October 30, 2010

Horrorthon 2: Day Thirty-One: The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980) -- A

John Carpenter’s The Fog deserves rank amongst the great genre filmmaker’s most cherished achievements. In an era predominately configured on changing aesthetic codes and altered narrative formation (soon to take the post-modern form of pastiche), Carpenter remained steadfast to three central components: characters to care about, economical mise-en-scene, and classic storytelling, founded upon the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or, in filmic terms, Howard Hawks. Assault on Precinct 13 explicitly revises the Hawksian western, updating it to fit the urban gang-led terrain of east Los Angeles, drawing heavily also upon both Night of the Living Dead’s black lead and zombie-like presence for the nameless, faceless gang members. Though his drawing upon influences may appear to belong to the growing attention to intertextual construction, Carpenter’s political attention and distinctly minimalist aesthetic signals pure innovation rather than layered regurgitation. The quintessential Halloween made Carpenter a name and, more importantly, signaled the arrival of a filmmaker with total command of his craft, able to use diegetic sound, screen space, and his now famous score to communicate the existential dread faced within the genre realm, a faceless, expressionless stalker terrorizing the suburban Haddonfield, a metonymic figure for complacent, bourgeois America. The film’s success can be linked to this unconscious fear on the viewer’s part, the safe neighborhoods and smiling faces of the 1950’s transforming into places of moral degeneracy, corruption, and violence – in essence, the disintegration of the family via the repressed and closeted forces of a bygone era, now fully in view to be dealt with head-on. The “return of the repressed” nightmare in Halloween merges perfectly with the postcolonial anxieties of The Fog, yet these astute discursive elements never impede upon Carpenter’s foremost concern: form, style, and – quite literally – atmosphere. Halloween’s dread is now even more palpable since Carpenter chooses to set his film in one place over a mere 24 hour period. The claustrophobic narrative duration serves as metaphorical mirror to Antonio Bay, the terrible place, a site where century old misdeeds return in the form of amorphous pirates, seeking retribution for betrayal and murder.

Carpenter opens by citing one of Poe’s most chilling quotes: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” Poe’s question of identity and consciousness suits both Carpenter’s interest in nightmarish apocalypse via psychological crisis (the horror genre) and cultural devotion, engaging in a celebration of the past, no matter how gruesome the hidden details may be. Likewise, the next image juxtaposes two more themes for Carpenter: innocence and time. The ticking pocket watch plays as an in-joke for connoisseurs of the auteur’s style, but more importantly, it establishes the lurking doom and dread, closing in with every tick. Childhood is no longer a safe, comfortable state when the personified sins of the parents return for retribution.

John Housman’s opening ghost story reinforces the competing modes - playful children’s campfire tale juxtaposed with vengeful, wronged men. In this scene, Carpenter introduces the first of his musical themes, creepily underlining the darkness and cold engulfing the fire barely lighting the frame. Such a duality persists throughout the film, and it’s this kind of attention to battling forces that enlivens his apocalyptic discourse, where all binaries are put into play, the highest of all (good vs. evil) dueling as well. What’s so marvelous about Carpenter’s formal filmmaking, though, is its fluidity; here, he doesn’t cut to a credit sequence, but tilts up, inserting a black credit card, but seemingly going through it to reveal the bay, the title card, and the rolling fog, a virtuoso subtlety that informs all of his masterful, early films.

A radio broadcast from a small lighthouse, run by Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), announces the clock’s toll of midnight; oddly enough, the bell is rung by Carpenter himself, making an Hitchockian cameo, though Carpenter actually has a few lines (he says them rather unconvincingly, unfortunately). Nevertheless, he is puppeteer, in control of the narrative and its visual/sonic composition. Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) quietly sips wine, relieving the Carpenter cameo of his duty. Malone’s shadow casts upon the wall, indicative of the proverbial double he casts, his ancestral responsible for the inevitably descending ghosts. An inexplicable, rumbling shakes free a piece of the cement wall, revealing a diary tucked beneath the surface, the contents a written recollection to be read aloud later in the film. A following montage chronicles the strange events throughout the town, such as car’s honking without drivers and gas pumping without pumpers. The only commentary provided is by Wayne’s raspy radio voice. The radio, a waning form of communication, is another meta-symbolic gesture of Carpenter’s anachronistic placement in film history, yet it also allows an ingenious narrative device for an uncanny discomfort, the radio VJ present but not, much like the murderous deeds serving as the foundation for the town’s centennial. It has a specter-like presence.

The montage segues into shore man Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) driving down a dark road; he stops to pick-up hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis). “You’re my thirteenth ride,” she tells him. Suddenly, their widows are smashed by an unseen force. Wayne chit-chats with radar man Dan O’Bannon (Charles Cyphers). A fog bank rolls into a ship of seamen, drunk and unaware of the demons that roam within. Cut to the radio, which pans up to reveal Nick and Elizabeth in bed together. They talk of her photography (which she hopes to sell) and how they both feel aimless in their lives, an irresoluteness about their ultimate destination. Wayne voiced the same thing earlier, how “it’s a lot of water, but at least it’s better than Chicago.” No one is at home, everyone is a drifter. A knock at Nick’s door signals a macabre solution to discontent – death, though a converse death than suffered by the knocker, whose life was ended by greed and ambition, not malaise. The wandering ennui of the living privileged brings back the angry souls of dead. Only a rupturing of the Grandfather clock (Carpenter’s pun intended) scares away the demon. Carpenter’s seamless transitions give the illusion of one continuous scene, without breaks or breaths. Though nearly 25 minutes into the film, it has the sense of a single sequence, an ultra-long take, even with the numerous cuts.

Night turns to day, and Wayne’s son Andy (Ty Mitchell) finds an artifact from the ship on the beach. Nick shows up at the docks to find his friends haven’t returned from their midnight rounds. Meanwhile, the preparation for celebrations have begun, conducted by community organizer Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) and her assistant Sandy (Nancy Loomis). The casting of Leigh, obviously Jamie Lee’s mother, alludes to Carpenter’s intention to retain Hitchcock’s mode of suspense over gore. Again, Carpenter cross-cuts between discovery of the abandoned ship and the pair of women’s trip to see Father Malone. “This city should be proud of its past,” claims Williams, almost as a pre-programmed response to younger Sandy’s sarcasm and reticence towards their preparations. Malone interrupts their visit by reading the found diary; it reveals his grandfather’s admission of murdering Blake, a rich, sickly man who wanted to move the colony away from the bay. He took his riches and inhabited the land, claiming wealth, persistence and prosperity as a disguise. Overlapping Malone’s reading is Nick’s admission that “[I] don’t believe in much of anything,” a further compromise of his living, breathing body. Life taken, life uncertain – another duality persists, though Carpenter is not interested in giving easy answers or answers at all. The uncertainty lingers, explicated in troubling stories of the past, told simultaneously by Nick and Malone, each reckoning with troubled family pasts.

A body found in the remains of the ship has the signs of having been under water for more than several months; it comes to life momentarily to scribble a “3” on the floor; the sun sets, night approaches. Carpenter again manages this as if this will be the last sunset, as if death is closing in on everyone, not just those of Antonio Bay, but anyone with sins to hide, not only from a higher power, but from themselves, engaging in subterfuge to absolve their conscience. The descending fog is a threat to anyone with blood on their hands (or, as the slasher mold tends to go, anyone who dares to take its threat lightly). Carpenter communicates this through the mise-en-scene, a neon red offsetting the fog’s grays and blues. His attention to color comes through strongly in these sequences, using them in supplements with the pools of black.

Not to be underestimated through all of the thematic and formal elements is just how damned scary Carpenter’s film is, streamlined to disallow a breath to alleviate the tension. This shouldn’t suggest that the film isn’t without a sense of humor – on the contrary, the opening half is slyly funny about the notion of impending doom, Carpenter’s apocalyptic laughter coming just to the edge of the void before falling in. The second half, though, considers the end more thoroughly, rounding all of the characters up in Father Malone’s chapel, Carpenter’s score pulsating to the wall of enclosing fog, and all of them quickly thinking of how to bargain, not just with the bloodthirsty demons of the fog, but themselves, if their own fears, frights, and anxieties can be dealt with (not to mention echoes of Assault). The object sought is a gold cross – religious synecdoche in the form of materialism. The cross-hairs of guilt and religion mesh with Carpenter’s glowing, illuminated cross, the hands of the transgressed and the kin of the transgressor meeting, physically paying for the postcolonial guilt that now plagues rational minds. He gives back the material good taken, but cannot restore the life lost. Nick, Elizabeth, and the others do not speak their own thoughts, but their expressions relay reflection and understanding of mortality – the fleeting, ephemeral life that can be snatched away by colonists fueled by greed or just the rolling fog on any given night. As Wayne warns: “Look for the fog.” Look at yourself, engage in self-reflection, or these ghosts will persist and haunt the next generation, as more wronged men return for their due. At its foundation, Carpenter lays a simple moral base. Yet mounted upon that is something much grander and more nuanced, both filmicly and philosophically. The closing shot is not just a meaningless jump scare, but a reminder that even momentary complacency and amorality can (and will) cause havoc, both psychologically and physically. The Fog is indeed a great horror film, a great ghost story, and great for Halloween, but it’s also a richly defined film about history and injustice, indicating that, to echo the opening Poe quote, reality can turn into a nightmare, and vice versa, if civility and dignified purpose don’t prevail.

I’ve enjoyed writing this second Horrorthon and I hope everyone has enjoyed reading. Until next year…

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