The Fog (1980)

Hollywood has a thing for remaking anything with John Carpenter’s name on it, even the snoozier stuff like The Fog. It almost never ends well. Whether or not you enjoy early Carpenter fare like Assault on Precinct 13 or Halloween, there’s little doubt that the remakes amount to nothing but unorganized grabastic pieces of amphibian shit. They remade The Thing recently, too, which approaches sacrilege, and they even had the gall to structure the thing (ha!) as a prequel of sorts without bothering to dream up a different title (like Dawn of the Planet of the Thing: Origins). We weren’t fooled: it’s a remake. Just last week a proposed remake of Big Trouble in Little China hit the internet because why the hell not? It’s there, isn’t it? What else are we supposed to do with it? Sit on the couch with Dwayne Johnson right there and everything and just watch it?

The Fog, Carpenter’s first studio feature after the unexpected success of Halloween, might have been one that could have been improved by a remake. The original contains a great deal of evidence as to why Carpenter’s films seem so remakeable, regardless of whatever the reason is that no one can seem to pull it off. 2007’s Halloween completely missed massive aspects of the original that made it good in the first place, as have most other Carpenter re-dos, but with The Fog there wasn’t much to worry about in that arena. The premise is straightforward and the execution in the original leaves much to be desired, based on a few things we’ll touch on here. But lo and behold: they quite literally hired the dude who directed Blank Check to helm the Fog remake, and the update managed to be so many zillion times worse than the already-not-that-great original. Go figure.

Special effects are one reason why those seething maniacs very nice people in Hollywood can’t stop reimagining Carpenter. As with The Thing, effects in The Fog are largely practical. It’s easy to envision the crew running around with fog machines (“where the f*ck is the outlet?”) and waiting in between takes for massive clouds of smoke to clear. Hollywood thinks: what a pain in the ass. Not only would computer-generated fog be easier, but it would be more manipulatable and potentially better utilized as well. Given the prevalence of technology, it’s probably even cheaper. Let’s go for it, Hollywood thinks, and meanwhile John Carpenter is getting really frustrated trying to untangle that extension cord.

Both Fogs move pretty slowly, not unlike actual fog, but at least in the original the characters aren’t spoiled teens. The bayside setting is done well, and something about these characters looking out over the water and seeing a faint growing light, wind striking their faces, sleeves rolling down even though the sun seems to be shining — it’s chilling, and as usual Carpenter shows he’s a master of atmosphere. His score helps. And there’s style to spare here, Younger-Carpenter vigor that noticeably does not exist in the remake and even seems to have evaporated in a few Older-Carpenter features.

The problem lies in the story, which follows a few small groups of people dealing with the onset of the dangerous mist. As with Assault on Precinct 13, part of the idea is to unite these disparate groups into a kind of bloc against the primary threat of the film. In Fog it’s too little too late, as the threads only come together for the last stand; in Assault, the back two-thirds of the film is spent watching the people from vastly different walks of life come together. Further complicating matters is the fact that the fog doesn’t seem to care who it kills, from old maids to little tykes. An indiscriminate stalker might seem all the more terrifying, but as the slow-moving mass engulfs the little town it just plays as if Carpenter and Co. couldn’t have been bothered to make up clearer rules. The film goes to great lengths to involve a century-old history within the swirling fog, but the more it explains the less sense it all makes.

But you know what? I like the fog in the original. It’s obviously real — or “practical”, technically, would be the word, but “real” means “scary” in this context — and at times it’s wondrous the way the crew were able to make the cloud move. Hollywood might have been right about CGI fog being easier and cheaper, but they were dead wrong about it being utilized to greater effect. If The Fog makes you wonder just how they got that fog to swirl just so around that red-eyed ghost thingy in the background, well, you might just wonder if the fog decided to do that of its own volition. If you catch yourself wondering that then you’ve already conceded that fog has volition, which is never something that would even cross your mind as you watch a computer-generated puff of smoke gyrate around the remake. But that shred of doubt is necessary for The Fog to work at all, and even though it’s not a great movie Carpenter clearly understood that. If he couldn’t make it work, no one can.

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