The Fog

The Fog is currently available on instant Netflix and Amazon Prime.

The Fog (1980) – Rated R

“While an old, weather-beaten fisherman tells a ghost story to fascinated children huddled by a campfire, a piece of driftwood in a child’s hands begins to glow, and an eerie fog envelops the seaside community of Antonio Bay. From its midst emerges demonic victims of a century-old shipwreck seeking revenge on the small town. Director John Carpenter’s follow-up to his breakout film, Halloween, stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh.”

“Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream.”

“There’s no fog bank out there.” – ” Hey there’s a fog bank out there.”

One of the things I love about John Carpenter is that he does not beat ideas to death. After Halloween, he could have made a sequel but instead made The Fog. In spite of also being horror and also starring Jamie Lee Curtis, The Fog is very different from Halloween. Both of those films are quite different from his next two films, Escape from New York and The Thing.

John Houseman puts in a special appearance long enough to tell a wonderful campfire ghost story to a group of children. Naturally that serves as a prologue relating the story of the Elizabeth Dane, a ship that sank a hundred years ago.

John Carpenter assembles a wonderful ensemble cast here. In addition to Jamie Lee Curtis, he also brings Charles Cyphers and Nancy Loomis over from Halloween. Cyphers, Sheriff Brackett in Halloween, plays Dan O’ Bannon, the weatherman. Loomis, Annie Brackett in Halloween, is Sandy here.

John Carpenter cast his wife Adrienne Barbeau as Stevie Wayne, the local disc jockey and lighthouse keeper. Hal Holbrook is absolutely wonderful as the tortured, alcoholic Father Malone. Tough Tom Atkins gets leading man status as Nick Castle playing opposite Jamie Lee Curtis’ hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley. Finally Jamie Lee Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh (yes Psycho), plays town matriarch Kathy Williams.

The beginning of the film where all the cars start honking, jars fall off shelves, gas pumps start themselves, etc. seems a little pointless. The first two acts are uneven – the campfire story, the attack on the boat, the discovery of the journal in the church, the coin turning into a piece of wood are all great scenes but many other scenes are just filler to pad time until we get to the siege of the town.

Carpenter’s use of the 2.35:1 widescreen format is wonderful. He has a great eye for composition and both of those set his horror films apart from those of this era. The visuals of the fog, the undead sailors, and the ship are amazing. The siege of the town takes up the last third of the film and is where The Fog really shines. It is good enough to make you forget the early flaws and is quite memorable. I try my best not to spoil endings so I will just say that The Fog has one of the best endings of any horror movie.

While not nearly as iconic as Halloween, John Carpenter’s electronic music for The Fog, mostly heard during the third act, helps raise the tension. His music stings are good as well. The sound effects are chilling particularly those in the early attack on the boat.

People Watch: Look for writer/director John Carpenter in a cameo as Bennett. Darwin Joston, the star of Carpenter’s low-budget Assault on Precinct 13, has a cameo as Dr. Phibes. Carpenter loves joke character names.

Sequel-itis: The Fog was remade by Rupert Wainwright in 2005 using state of the art CGI. The film is filled with young actors such as Tom Welling and is not very good. With Carpenter’s The Fog having a perfect ending, it is surprising that the remake blows that too.

Touch of Evil – South of the Border week

This is South of the Border week. We will be featuring movies based in Mexico. Touch of Evil is currently available on instant Netflix.

WATCH: Touch of Evil (1958) – NR – Not rated but contains adult content and violence.

“Narcotics detective Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) sees his honeymoon cut short when a car crossing the U.S.-Mexico border explodes before his eyes. Vargas forsakes his bride (Janet Leigh) to mount an investigation, but soon locks horns with corpulent Sheriff Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). The shady cop is not above planting evidence — or colluding with the local crime lord — to keep Vargas from discovering the ugly truth.”

“He says you do not understand what he wants.” – “I understand very well what he wants.”

“An hour ago Rudy Linnekar had this town in his pocket.” – “Now you can strain him through a sieve.”

“A policemans job is only easy in a police state.”

Orson Welles directed this quintessential noir film. It is sort of based on the book “Badge of Evil”. When Welles took over as director, he completely rewrote the script. Mike Vargas was changed from American to Mexican and his wife from Mexican to American.

Welles was not able to get his vision released in 1958. The studio fired him, cut many of his scenes and had Harry Keller reshoot others. He wrote a 58 page memo detailing his vision of the movie and the interference of Universal.

A version of the film was released in 1975. Most of the scenes added by Harry Keller were cut and several of the scenes by Welles were added back in.

Later, thanks to Charlton Heston, the 58-page memo by Welles resurfaced. It was used as a blueprint for a directors cut. This cut was released in 1998 to theaters and later DVD.

I was lucky enough to catch the 1998 release at the theater.

It begins with perhaps the best tracking shot in motion picture history (though Scorsese has a great one in Goodfellas). An anonymous man sets a kitchen timer on a bomb and plants it in a car. We then follow the car and later the Vargases as they intersect the shot with the car. This is all done in one long continuous shot.

I love the scene where Joe Grandi and Quinlan are discussing their partnership. Quinlan starts to say “I dont…” and realizes that he is drinking.

Charlton Heston does a wonderful job as Mexican police chief Mike Vargas. His character is fairly complex. While he is a righteous police officer, he understands that his out of his depth and jurisdiction north of the border.

Janet Leigh plays his wife, Susie. She does a great job with the woman in peril role while at the same time showing a disdain for Mexicans in spite of being married to one.

The scenes scaring her are very tepid, even goofy by what we see today. On the other hand it is utterly amazing how much got past the censors of the time.

Orson Welles himself plays Hank Quinlan, the American policeman. His staccato speech rhythms work really well here. I love the scene where he is discussing his partnership with Grandi. Quinlan starts to say “I dont…” and realizes that he is drinking.

Marlene Dietrich is simply amazing in her brief part. In her first scene, she looks at Quinlan and with great impact says “we are closed”. She takes an ordinary throwaway line and makes it her own. Her final lines are incredible.

Dennis Weaver (yes McCloud and Chester from Gunsmoke) plays a freaked out night manager. Unfortunately he is terrible in every scene that he is in.

My guess is that Welles was trying for some comic relief to offset the darkness of the noir but it really comes off badly. Basically all the sequences in that hotel are poor especially the music.

The pianola score used through much of the film (not the hotel sequences) is quite haunting.

Apart from the scenes in the hotel with Dennis Weaver, this is a fabulous film noir filled with wonderful directorial flourishes. With two caveats (the hotel and below), I heartily recommend this movie. Hurry though Netflix is retiring this one on 4/7.

Please note: While very worthwhile, the instant Netflix version is the 1958 one (95 minutes). For the 1998 restoration (112 minutes) you will need the DVD version.

While Vargas is the nominal protagonist, the story is actually all about Quinlan. It is clear that Welles in his direction and rewrite subverted the original story and made Quinlan the focus of the picture. Vargas seems more of a catalyst than a hero.

It is hard to believe that one of the greatest noirs of all time was not only a B-picture but was actually the back half of a double bill for The Female Animal.

People Watch: Wow – quite a few cameos here. Zsa Zsa Gabor appears for about four seconds but is instantly recognizable. Mercedes McCambridge appears as briefly as a gang leader who likes to watch (gosh would there be some subtext here to get past the censors?). Keenan Wynn is a lawyer and Joseph Cotton is the coroner in other brief cameos.

Prince Valiant

In 1954, Hal Foster’s comic Prince Valiant was adapted into a movie. This feature by Henry Hathaway is currently available on Netflix instant play.

Prince Valiant

WATCH: Prince Valiant (1954) – Rated PG

“The tale from the Sunday comics about a Viking prince under the reign of King Arthur is brought to life with Robert Wagner in the title role. A mentor to young Valiant is Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden), who has trained the young warrior for the Round Table. Also coloring the screen are Princess Aleta (Janet Leigh), Valiant’s love, and Sir Brack (James Mason), the ominous villain.”

First let me state that I’m not qualified to judge whether this is a faithful adaptation of Hal Foster’s iconic strip. It is fun to watch a very young Robert Wagner as Valiant, especially in his cute pageboy haircut. James Mason is wonderfully villainous as Sir Brack but Sterling Hayden is quite upright and stilted as the stalwart Sir Gawain. Janet Leigh and Debra Paget are equally lovely as Aleta and Ilene though clearly Gawain is bewitched by blond hair as he doesn’t even notice that Debra Paget is throwing herself at him.

The sets are quite colorful and design makes good use of the Cinemascope process. The castle shots are wonderful using both Alnwick and Warwick castles. There’s a wonderful shot as Valiant looks up from his bed at Aleta whose head is framed halo-like by the chandelier. Having listed all of that, the rest of the cast and production seem lifeless so I’m recommending this as a Watch but with reservations.

People Watch: Michael Rennie does the narration, Neville Brand plays a viking chief, and boxer Primo Carnera plays Sligon though none are listed in the credits.

Psycho

Having discussed 1960’s Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom yesterday, it seems only fitting that I discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho today.

Psycho

WATCH: Psycho (1960) – “When larcenous real estate clerk Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) goes on the lam with a wad of cash and hopes of starting a new life, she ends up at the notorious Bates Motel, where twitchy manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) cares for his housebound mother. The place seems quirky but fine … until Marion decides to take a shower. Director Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-nominated shocker has been terrifying viewers for decades — and for good reason.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is still a masterpiece. While it is definitely a progenitor of the slasher genre, there are actually very few deaths in the film. It starts off as if it is going to be a caper film and then abruptly changes direction a third of the way into the film. Janet Leigh and Vera Miles are wonderful and Martin Balsam is good but of course the film belongs to Anthony Perkins. His performance is pitch perfect – charming in a slightly socially inept way, with just a little hint that something is off. The only bad performance is from John Gavin and its not a terrible performance, he just seems to suck the energy out of his scenes.  Hitchcock really piques our interest as usual with a MacGuffin (the $40,000) in the first act and he has several impressive scenes with horrific imagery in the second and third acts (including the infamous shower scene). The black and white cinematography and framing are excellent and the sets are iconic enough to be part of a tourist attraction now.

People watchers: look for a young Simon Oakland (Kolchak) as Dr. Fred Richmond.

AVOID: Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus: Great trailer (catch it on youtube) – terrible movie. Bad acting, worse directing, and really bad CGI add up to a truly dreadful film. The scene where the shark attacks a plane in flight is hilarious though.