Monday, February 9, 2009

Shitty Movies By Great Directors, Episode 2: John Carpenter's "The Fog"

Of all the directors I plan on covering in this series of posts, John Carpenter may very well be my favorite. No single director meant more to my childhood; when I was little, I thought that Escape From New York was the best movie ever made, and I was almost equally obsessed with Big Trouble in Little China, as well as (when I was finally brave enough to watch it) The Thing. And though my opinion on the hierarchy of his films has changed since those days, he's still a filmmaker I revere to an almost absurd degree.

Not only do I love John Carpenter more than most other people, I love him more than most other people who love John Carpenter love him. I'm the one human on this planet who thinks Ghosts of Mars is good, and I love Escape From L.A. Even the occasional movie of his that I don't much like, for instance Memoirs of an Invisible Man, I would never call a bad film, just an average one.

I think my point is that when I call The Fog a shitty movie, it means more than when other people say it.

Wait, let's not get negative quite yet. First, we should talk about what makes Carpenter a great director. For my money, he is the undisputed king of genre movies. Carpenter, it is well known, is a big fan of Howard Hawkes, and has a similar style of working in seemingly disreputable genres and elevating them with his technique. Let's acknowledge that Halloween and The Thing are two of the best, scariest horror movies ever made, movies that build tremendous anxiety through voyeurism and paranoia. Movies like Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China and They Live are some of the most entertaining, badass action and science fiction movies of the 80's. Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 are low budget films that don't seem nearly as cheap as they are, because of the skill involved. Carpenter is not known for his warm humanism, but his one journey into sentimental territory, the sci-fi romance Starman, is surprisingly touching and magical.

The best thing about Carpenter, though, is the way he sneaks of lot of subversive elements into seemingly benign movies. The greatest example is, of course, They Live, an action/sci-fi movie about how all Republicans are secretly evil aliens that have taken over America and brainwashed the public into compliance. (I don't understand why nobody did a remake during the Bush administration). That's the most overt example, but there are plenty of others sprinkled throughout in his filmography. Like the pro-drug subtext in Ghosts of Mars and Big Trouble in Little China (and in They Live, come to think of it).

And it's not always political, sometimes he just likes to subvert the cliches and structure of genre movies. Like the way the hero of Escape From New York is basically a villain, but because he's badass and uncompromising he becomes our favorite character. Or the way the hero in Big Trouble is really a pussy and not very good at being a hero at all, seems more like a sidekick and is, in fact, frequently shown up by the character who is supposedly his sidekick. Or the way that Escape From L.A. is essentially a parody of the first film. And on and on.

The Fog opens with some Edgar Allen Poe quote about dreams within dreams, which in retrospect doesn't even fit the movie at all because there's no ambiguity or doubt about the nature of reality in the film. And then the movie cuts to some guy telling a bunch of kids a ghost story, which sets up the plot of The Fog. I guess it's to try to establish the tone for the movie as being like a campfire story, or something. Really though, it's just a framing device that doesn't pay off and doesn't add much to the rest of the film except to make it feel like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?

I guess this was also the first sign that Carpenter wasn't going to slip anything subversive into this one. It's just an old-fashioned ghost story, with not much of a new twist on the material. A priest plays a major role, and I thought maybe Carpenter was going to use him to paint the church in a negative light like in Prince of Darkness or Vampires, but the priest is more or less a good guy. Not that I necessarily wanted Carpenter to mock the church, but I was expecting to find something interesting and came up empty-handed.

I'm not going to synopsize too much. The Fog is about a bunch of evil pirate ghosts who hide in the fog. They descend on some small coastal town, and a couple people get killed and then the good guys figure out how to stop the ghosts, the end. I'm not a big fan of ghost/haunting movies because 9 times out of 10, they are made up of a series of arbitrary scares that don't make sense. There are never any clear rules, the ghosts can always do whatever they want, whenever they want. The Fog is a severe offender in this regard.

In the beginning of the movie, there is a montage of different locations all around town, and car alarms all start randomly going off and a gas pump starts leaking and a bunch of random other shit. I guess in real life, if that really happened, it might be kinda scary. In a movie, it's fucking boring. And it gets worse. Throughout the movie, random "spooky" shit keeps happening, like spontaneously generated water and strange noises, I guess caused by the ghosts, but I have no idea why they are doing it. When the ghosts show up, it makes even less sense. They apparently regain human form and hide in the fog (which they control) and then they knock on peoples' doors (they are polite?) and when the door opens they attack the people inside with blades. I didn't know that apparitions needed weapons. And I don't know where they got the weapons. I guess knives have souls too. Ghost knives, yeah.

A good prototypical scene in the movie is one where a character is being stalked by a ghost. Suddenly, a clock breaks open from ghost magic or whatever and then the ghost disappears. Scared off by his own ghost-trick? I don't know, it's just arbitrary nonsense.

Halloween and The Thing are not realistic movies by any stretch of the imagination but they at least establish some ground rules and set up their villains as a credible threat. I understand what I'm supposed to be afraid of. In The Fog and movies like it, the bad guys are more or less God because they can do anything. Only they're some sort of God with short term memory loss where He only sometimes remembers that He's omnipotent and can alter reality and the rest of the time He stabs people with knives.

There's something else wrong with that montage of the town I mentioned before. It serves no purpose. I assumed at the time that it was establishing some key locations for the film, but then I don't think see most of them ever again. It's actually very similar to the ending montage from Halloween in its construction, only it lacks a real goal. The ending of Halloween is brilliant because we are shown a series of shots of different places from throughout the movie, and we realize that the killer could be anywhere. Here, at the beginning of The Fog, it's just a series of slightly atmospheric but mostly pointless shots of places we won't see again.

Back tracking a bit here, I've made it clear the premise doesn't work for me at all, but there are other reasons why I think the film fails to be scary in the way Carpenter's best horror movies are. Most notably is the lack of any inspired set pieces. There's nothing comparable to Laurie locking herself in the closet in Halloween, or the blood-test scene in The Thing, or the diner scene in In the Mouth of Madness. The scenes passing for scary in The Fog are repetitive and uninteresting; the ghosts knock on a door, then come in and stab someone. The best scene involves a kid trying to escape out a window while ghosts try hack down his door Shining-style... but I don't understand why the ghosts are trying to break down his door when they should be able to teleport into his room.

Also, I have to gripe about the characters. I said before that Carpenter is not known for his warm humanism, but you usually at least give a shit about his characters and don't want to see them die. The Fog has a good cast, but it's overcrowded with about 7 or 8 major characters who aren't very interesting and aren't given much to do. It feels more like a bad slasher movie where everyone is just murder fodder, except that most of the characters don't get killed in The Fog. They each get one set piece to be involved in and don't do much else the rest of the time. From what I read, Carpenter did some considerable reshoots on The Fog, so this may explain the overstuffed cast.

And it may explain the overstuffed plot, for that matter. The premise of The Fog is basic enough (murderous pirate ghosts kill townspeople) but Carpenter keeps throwing in endless subplots and backstory that don't do much to add to the atmosphere or build any more suspense. I don't really care about the ghosts other than the fact that they want to kill everyone, but the movie keeps stopping for exposition. I tend to be of the belief that horror movies work best when the plots are simplified, but if you are going to make one with a more complex plot, make sure the plot contains a lot of creepy and disturbing ideas (as Carpenter successfully did in The Thing, In the Mouth of Madness and Prince of Darkness).

In most his other horror movies, Carpenter is brilliant at crafting creepy, ambiguous endings that leave you disturbed long after the movie has ended. I already mentioned Halloween's. The Thing and Prince of Darkness also have classic endings, and In the Mouth of Madness has a kind of humorous take on this kind of ending. So that makes it an extra shame how witless the end of The Fog is. The priest figures out that the ghosts want the gold that was stolen from them long ago blah blah blah backstory, and the ghosts take the gold and then they leave. Everything goes back to normal, happy ending yadda yadda. In the final shots of the film, the ghosts reappear and kill the priest in a silly BOO! scare.

This is the kind of silly generic bullshit that should show up in Halloween: Resurrection, not in a film by the guy who directed the original Halloween.

Okay, let me be a little positive. This movie is not a disaster like Robert Altman's Quintet was. And Carpetner's talent is sometimes apparent, even if the movie is a dud. It's shitty, yes, but I'm only being so hard on it because of my esteem for the director. The Fog has a better than average cast for a movie of it's ilk, some entertaining special effects, some nice cinematography, and a few so-bad-it's-good moments. By far my favorite part of the film is a scene where one of the main characters is being bothered by her annoying son. The kid asks if he can have "a stomach pounder and a coke," which so mystified my girlfriend and I that we had to Google "stomach pounder" right away. Turns out that no one knows what the fuck it means. I would have guessed that it's a burger or something, but the mom tells him he has to eat his lunch first, so it kind of rules that out unless the kid is a bigger fatass than I remember. I guess it must be some sort of junk food but it doesn't really sound like it. It sounds more like Carpenter was trying to write something he thought a kid would say and failed in a confusing but comical manner.

Thing is, I don't want accidental comedy in a John Carpenter movie. I want real comedy and real scares, and I want it to be a good fucking movie. Maybe if Steve Miner or someone like that made this, I would give it a pass. I wouldn't like it, but I wouldn't have strong feelings against it either. I do have strong feelings against The Fog, and I'm the guy who thinks Village of the Damned isn't that bad.

Next Time:

Robert Zemeckis


Patrick said...

"and when the door opens they attack the people inside with blades. I didn't know that apparitions needed weapons. And I don't know where they got the weapons either. I guess knives have souls too. Ghost knives, yeah."
I just want to point out this solves the famous knife problem of "Surf Ninjas" ie: if money can't buy knives who bothers to create them for no profit? The answer is clear, ghost pirates.

and oh yeah, this movie blows.

Dan said...

so after the ghost pirates are done using the knives once every hundred years or whatever, does that mean they then let the knives enter circulation. like, maybe all of our knives were crafted by ghost pirates?

Patrick said...

Exactly, they aren't worried about profit so they create knives for themselves, then just leave them behind.

Dan said...

So if we want a knife, we just have to find one? That's the part I'm still unclear on. If money can't buy them, where do I get them?