'THE FOG': A SPOOK RIDE ON FILM
By Paul Scanlon
The interior of the Sir Francis Drake garage had been converted into a sound-stage for the day, and the citizens of Inverness, a tiny coastal town just north of San Francisco, were highly amused.
Some sixty people and two dogs stood silently in the dark, corrugated-metal shed as director John Carpenter gave the order to roll the cameras. It was to be a simulated night shot of a moving car with Nancy Loomis at the wheel and Janet Leigh in the passenger's seat. Off-camera, technicians gently rocked the car to suggest motion while a script person read lines that would later be dubbed into the soundtrack as a radio broadcast:
"It's moving faster now... It's coming down Tenth Street... If you're on the south side of town, turn around... Stay away from the fog!"
Carpenter did four takes without shutting off the two cameras. Loomis and Leigh managed to look a little more terrified each time. Cut. Print. A polite round of applause. The director, 29, who sports a droopy mustache and unfashionably long hair, thanked everyone, stuffed his hands into an oversized parka and retired to a quiet corner to explain his new film, THE FOG.
"It's a ghost story," Carpenter began, "set in a small town on the California coast. A hundred years earlier, there had been a shipwreck in very dense fog off the point. Now, the fog has returned and the sailors who were killed have come back to get their revenge.
"I came up with an idea before i connected it to a ghost genre - an idea of fog. It's a frame in which to do certain cinematic things with ghosts." Carpenter paused to think for a minute. "You don't really see ghosts as much as you think you see them. The fog moves around, it glows, it comes under doorways, through windowpanes, through your clothes... I can't really tell you more than that. I think, in its own way, THE FOG will allow me the same kinds of opportunities that HALLOWEEN did."
He was talking about technical opportunities. But now that Carpenter and Debra Hill, producer and cowriter of HALLOWEEN, are certified Hot Stuff, all kinds of opportunities abound. In the seven months since its release, HALLOWEEN, produced for only $300,000, has grossed $15 million in the U.S. alone. THE FOG, which wil be released by Avco-Embassy, is budgeted at $1 million.
Carpenter left Kentucky in 1968 to attend the University of Southern California film school. His first movie, THE RESURRECTION OF BRONCHO BILLY, won an Academy Award in 1970 for Best Live Action Short Subject. A student project, DARK STAR, cowritten with Dan O'Bannon (ALIEN), gradually evolved into his first feature length film and was released in 1974. It remains a science-fiction cult classic. Carpenter's other screen credits include ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and the original story and screenplay for THE EYES OF LAURA MARS, about which he remains gloomy: "I signed a deal where I would write it and direct it if Barbara Streisand was to play the lead. It didn't pan out and I dropped out. The final script contained some of the same ideas but it was drastically changed." He's also done some interesting television projects, including this years much-acclaimed ELVIS.
Hill - also twenty-nine - was the script supervisor on ASSAULT, and it wasn't long before she and Carpenter became friends and collaborators. At the London Film Festival, they met Irwin Yablans, an independent financier and distributor who liked ASSAULT and had a project in mind for them called THE BABYSITTER MURDERS.
"It started out as a chance for me to make a low-budget film with complete control,"said Carpenter, "and I liked the idea of this man who stalks baby sitters. For the longest time, we didn't know what it was going to be. Then I came up with the idea of having it happen on Halloween night, and it really started to intrigue me.
"Halloween night. It has never been the theme in a film. My idea was to do an old haunted house movie. When we used to go to state fairs, they always had an attraction called the Haunted House. It would be completely dark and as you stepped on certain boards, things would jump out and scare you. Sort of like the spook ride at an amusement park. That's what I wanted to do: a spook ride on film, taking the audience through twists and turns and having things jump out at them."
HALLOWEEN concerns a homicidal maniac who escapes form an insane asylum fifteen years after dispatching his sister with a butcher knife. He makes it back to his hometown, appropriately, on All Hallows Eve, and sets his deranged sights on three teenage girls. The maniac - played by Nick Castle and known to everyone in the production as the Shape - wears a white rubber mask and spends a good half the film lurking in the shadows while he sizes up his prey. British actor Donald Pleasence, playing a psychiatrist obsessed with the Shape's recapture, shows up in town, rolls his beady eyes and announces to anyone who will listen that his former patient is the "personification of evil."
In the end, after surprisingly little graphic bloodshed but an abundance of terror, the Shape meets his match in Laurie, played wonderfully by Jamie Lee Curtis (the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis). It's all good fun and scary as hell, and much to the surprise of Carpenter and Hill, it went through the roof at the box office, eventually winning the Grand Prix at this year's Eighth Annual International Science Fiction Film Festival in Paris. Curtis took the Best Actress award as well.
Despite the film's generally favorable notices, some reviewers were bothered by the Laurie character. She's the only one who doesn't disrobe in the film; she's the only one who doesn't get done in. Was Carpenter making a paean to virginity? He bristled: "They missed the point. Sure, the other girls who are sexually active are the ones who get killed. But Laurie is the virgin with all this repressed sexual energy. And she stabs him with the knife again and again. It's a backward twist. She's the one who sticks it in."
Though Carpenter's sense of irony is all his own, his cinematic technique is highly derivative of other directors' work, and he enjoys displaying his roots and throwing in little homages to his idols. In the background of HALLOWEEN, there's a "horror-a-thon" on television that includes clips from a few of Carpenter's favorite movies, most notably Howard Hawk's THE THING. And Pleasence's character in the movie is called Sam Loomis, which was John Given's name in PSYCHO.
"I've learned the most from - and respect the most - Howard Hawks, John Ford, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock," said Carpenter. "And I love the films of the Forties and Fifties."
That evening, the cast and crew of THE FOG reassemble five miles away on the main street of Point Reyes Station (population 300), a jewellike town perched between lush, rolling hills and Tomales Bay. The residents had agreed to shut off all the lights on the two-block stretch (in the scene, the fog attacks the town generator), and when the camera lights were turned on to dispel the miniblackout, the town, bathed in an eerie blueish glow, looked - of all things - like a movie set.
A chill, persistent wind was coming in off the Pacific, and clusters of locals stood shivering behind the cameras, waiting to see what would happen. Way up the street, the less curious - and maybe wiser - citizens occasionally poked their heads out of the dimmed interiors of the Western Tavern and the Two-Ball Inn.
Jamie Lee Curtis, 19, huddled behind an equipment truck, trying to keep warm. Totally disarming, she spoke in short, cadenced phrases about her career. "I started acting two years ago," she said between puffs of an omnipresent cigarette. "I straight-out auditioned for HALLOWEEN. I was lucky. A lot of directors just look for the visual thing and boom, either you're right, or you're not right. John went past my visual exterior. He wanted to get a more vulnerable look, like what I really am on the inside. I mean, from you just visualizing me here, I don't think you would look at me as a sixteen-year-old virgin, would you? John can make me look eighty-five if he wants."
In THE FOG, Curtis plays an itinerant artist named Elizabeth, who arrives in "Antonio Bay" about the same time as the malevolent pea soup. "Elizabeth's really neat," she continued. "Laurie was just sixteen, repressed, the worst. In THE FOG, the first time you see me, I'm hitchhiking. The second time you see me, I'm in bed. With the guy. And it's nice. She's not a whore. She's got a reason.
"That's what I love about John. He's letting me explore different aspects of myself. I'm spoiled rotten now. My next director is going to be almost a letdown." A voice from up the street called her name. She finished her cigarette, grabbed the tape recorder, grinned and announced: "John just called me!"
The shot called for a pickup truck being driven by Curtis to be literally attacked by the fog. Half-a-dozen portable fog machines, making a racket like a chorus of power lawn mowers, began to belch a thick cloud of steam and dry ice into the air. The truck was to drive into it and then back out (the shot would later be reversed to make it look like the fog comes in after the truck).
But in take after take, the stiff ocean wind shredded the fog before it could congeal. To bring additional machines up from Los Angeles would mean an extra night's shooting and Carpenter still had the option of putting in the fog later with optical effects. He decided to give it one more try.
It was like magic. The minute the machines were fired up, the wind died. A good half of Point Reyes Station was obliterated in a greyish-white cloud. Curtis drove the truck into the mist. The fog - as if acting on orders - gradually dissipated into eerie tendrils that hung over the vehicle and street and snaked between the wooden storefronts. The fog machines were turned off. Everyone cheered.
Earlier that evening, sitting in his car with the heater on to ward off the chill, Carpenter explained, "I'm totally committed to cinema because it is the medium in which the viewer is affected emotionally. To me, films that are successful have something to do with life and death."
He paused to light a cigarette, and smiled. "I love H.P. Lovecraft... THE DUNWICH HORROR, THE RATS IN THE WALLS, I've read all of them. The genre of the weird. He suggested some textures, Lovecraft, and I'm trying to do the same thing in a ghost story.
"I'm treading the line because there are no such things as ghosts, but I want to make the audience believe there are. In the beginning scene, this old fisherman (John Houseman) tells the story to some kids about the shipwreck and the men who went down to the bottom of the sea. And then he tells the children: 'One day they will come up, still covered with seaweed, and they will come after you.'"