MUBI Movies: John Carpenter’s THE FOG

Absolute perfection.

MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2017, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.

It’s quite a thing for a director to have one iconic masterpiece, let alone two or three. And then there are those who have handfuls. Spielberg, The Coens, John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder, Kurosawa, etc. A tier representing that very rare upper-level of filmmaker giants, people who made movies that would be the peak of most filmographies over and over again.

John Carpenter enjoys a firm seat among them, but his place is curious. Because his masterpieces are genre - almost b-films - he seems ill-suited for intellectual darlings; meanwhile, fans feel a certain ownership of him. He’s not theirs, he’s ours. Spielberg comes close in this regard, but Carpenter takes the cake.

It’s great to see all these masterpieces, but it’s even more fun to start exploring films by these directors that aren’t as well-renowned, and this is particularly true of Carpenter. For those who grew up on Big Trouble in Little China, it’s an exciting joy to later see Prince of Darkness, which plays like an aesthetic companion to that film, albeit with a completely different tone.

The same excitement applies to The Fog (playing on MUBI right now), which Carpenter made between Halloween and Escape From New York (also on MUBI right now), two iconic slam dunks with which it shares many similarities in terms of music, cinematography and casting.

The Fog excels in its simplicity. Though Carpenter would later adapt Stephen King with Christine, this feels almost like another King adaptation. It’s a small story filled with blue-collar, small town characters (including a troubled Priest) in - despite taking place in California - what seems very much like one of King’s New England settings. It feels like a brief story you could read in Skeleton Crew or Night Shift.

Structurally, the film takes place over two nights. On the first, a mysterious fog overtakes a fishing boat. As the strange pirate/ghost/zombies that come with the fog murders the crew, odd events take place in the nearby town of Antonio Bay. The next night, the unstoppable fog makes landfall and threatens everyone. It turns out this violent, supernatural outbreak is due to a vengeful curse on the town, which 100 years ago chose to rob and steal from a leper named Blake who wished to establish a leper colony nearby. Dude’s just trying to set things right.

The early scenes of Halloween when Michael Myers, this unstoppable force of evil, casually walks around Haddenfield like anyone else, are terrifying. The Fog manages to achieve this too with its amazing fog special effects. The actual murderers who emerge from the fog are secondary to the looming threat of the fog itself. This is quite a feat. Shyamalan made a move about dangerous wind and became a laughing stock, to illustrate the skill it takes to make such a thing scary. Yet Carpenter achieves it, through a combination of somehow giving that fog a looming physicality and making the beings it brings ambiguous and elusive and undefined. To my mind, that’s even more impressive than what Carpenter achieved in Halloween.

The Fog is also remarkable for its cast, each of them playing adult characters, which is rare for a horror film. It so casually features such a great list of actors - Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh - that watching it for the first time is almost like looking at an old yearbook of people you love.

The Fog is too small to be a classic. It doesn’t have any iconography that could lend it a place in movie history. And yet I consider it a perfect horror film. If aliens landed and wanted to know what one of these looks like, there are plenty of more obvious entries you could show them. But, in this already insane hypothetical, if all these DVDs were borrowed out, there would be no shame in showing this one. It economically does exactly what a horror film should do. Despite coming out in 1980, it has a timeless, almost old fashioned quality that makes it feel more eternal than many other films from the era.

The Fog is playing on MUBI for the next 20 days. As you can probably assume, I highly recommend it as you start getting into Halloween mode.