Horror fans know John Carpenter best for Halloween and The Thing, while action and sci-fi aficionados might think of Escape from New York or Big Trouble in Little China. Often overlooked is The Fog, Carpenter’s eerie 1980 crowd-pleaser that overcame its low-budget, do-it-yourself production to become a huge hit, earning 20 times what it cost to make.
Ignore the 2005 remake (for your own good) and enjoy this peek behind the scenes at one of the forgotten gems of the early ’80s, which is making its way back into theaters for a limited Halloween engagement.
1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY SEVERAL CREEPY BRITISH THINGS.
Stonehenge, for one. In 1977, when Carpenter and his co-writer/producer/girlfriend Debra Hill were in England promoting Assault on Precinct 13, they visited the ancient ring of stones and were struck by the eerie, foggy, mysterious atmosphere. Carpenter was also inspired by The Trollenberg Terror, a 1958 British film (released in the U.S. as The Crawling Eye) in which creatures hide in the mist.
2. YOU CAN THANK DAVID CRONENBERG FOR THE GORE … MAYBE.
The film originally didn’t have much blood in it; Carpenter, having gone that route with Halloween, wanted to take a different tack this time. But gore was becoming popular with horror audiences, and since Carpenter was doing reshoots anyway, the studio urged him to add some bloodletting. Carpenter says in the DVD commentary that it was David Cronenberg’s Scanners that specifically inspired this … but Scanners came out a year after The Fog. Maybe he was thinking of Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979)?
3. JOHN HOUSEMAN WAS AN AFTERTHOUGHT.
About one-third of the film consists of footage shot after Carpenter and Hill watched a rough cut and determined the movie wasn’t working. They added some scenes, re-shot others, and introduced the character of the old man (John Houseman) who tells the campfire story at the beginning of the movie. (Note: Mr. Houseman was not among the creepy British things that inspired the movie.)
4. JOHN CARPENTER WAS WORKING WITH HIS WIFE AND HIS EX-GIRLFRIEND.
Carpenter and Hill met in 1975, when she worked as the script supervisor on Assault on Precinct 13 in 1975. They broke up in 1978, when Carpenter met Adrienne Barbeau while making the TV movie Someone’s Watching Me! Carpenter and Hill continued to work together for the rest of her life (she died in 2005), but making The Fog couldn’t have been easy for any of them, as it starred Barbeau, to whom Carpenter was newly married. (Jamie Lee Curtis, a friend of Hill’s, said in a 2013 interview that it was indeed an emotionally difficult time for her.)
5. THE NOVELIZATION CLARIFIES AN IMPORTANT PLOT POINT.
Dennis Etchison wrote the paperback novelization of the movie (he’d done the same for Halloween), in which better sense was made of the film’s somewhat jumbled plot. One key example: though it’s implied in the movie, the novel makes it clear that the six who “must die” are descendants of the original six whose nefarious deeds cursed the town.
6. JAMIE LEE CURTIS MADE THE FILM AS A FAVOR.
After the success of Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis experienced a not-unusual phenomenon where an actor expects to start getting roles but instead sits by the phone, waiting. The only post-Halloween jobs she got were guest appearances on The Love Boat and Buck Rogers, and she was getting discouraged. Carpenter, sympathetic to the ups and downs of showbiz, added a role in The Fog just for her. Prom Night and Terror Train came along while The Fog was still in post-production; the three movies being released back-to-back-to-back in 1980 led to Curtis being dubbed the cinema’s new “Scream Queen.”
7. CARPENTER WAS SO DISPLEASED WITH AN ACTOR’S PERFORMANCE THAT HE NEVER WORKED WITH THAT ACTOR AGAIN: HIMSELF.
The director plays the church janitor who talks to Hal Holbrook’s priest character near the beginning of the film. Carpenter said it was “one of the most terrifying moments in my life, having to deliver these lines to an accomplished actor.” His final verdict on his own performance: “I’m terrible, so I stopped doing roles after this movie, except for helicopter pilots and walk-ons.”
8. ONE OF THE JUMP SCARES IS TOTALLY A CHEAT.
About 34 minutes into the film, while walking through a church, Janet Leigh is startled by the sudden appearance of a priest played by Hal Holbrook, who steps out of a dark corner. But the corner wasn’t dark enough when they shot it, so you could see Holbrook standing there. To make the moment work better as a jump scare, Carpenter darkened that part of the frame in post-production to keep Holbrook concealed.
9. CARPENTER ENDANGERED HIS STAR/WIFE’S HEALTH.
The director’s obsession with Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) led him to make Barbeau’s character a cigarette smoker, emulating the feisty dames in Hawks’s movies. (He cited Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep specifically.) Barbeau was a staunch non-smoker, though, and had to learn how to do it right.
10. JUST ABOUT EVERY GHOST ARM IS ONE GUY’S.
Tommy Lee Wallace, a friend of Carpenter’s since their childhood days in Bowling Green, Kentucky, served as editor and production designer on The Fog, as he had done for Halloween. But both movies had him doing a bit of onscreen work, too. Wallace appeared as “the shape” (i.e., Michael Myers) in some Halloween shots; in The Fog, when several ghosts attack the church, it’s Wallace’s arm seen smashing through each of the windows.
11. JANET LEIGH WAS A BIG HELP.
Securing the participation of a veteran actress who was also the star of Psycho and the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis was a boost to The Fog’s street cred, but Janet Leigh proved useful in very practical ways, too. For one thing, she was a pro. Carpenter said that because of technical problems, the scene where she cries (just before the festival begins) required 14 takes—and Leigh delivered real tears every time. In another instance, Carpenter used Leigh’s stardom to charm a local restaurant owner into staying open late for shooting.
12. THERE’S A SIMPLE REASON WHY THE FILM’S RADIO STATION PLAYS SMOOTH JAZZ.
That’s right: money. Though it seems unlikely that a station with this format would be so popular, even in a small town, it’s much cheaper for filmmakers to get the rights to generic jazz recordings than, say, popular rock songs.
Additional Sources: Commentary and features on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray
An earlier version of this article ran in 2016.
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