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Unseen Threats: Revisiting “THE FOG” under COVID-19

Friday, April 24, 2020 | Opinion, Retrospective

By Jason S. Marsiglia

11:55. Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before 12:00, just to keep us warm. Forty years ago on the 21st of April, a long-buried secret rose from the murky depths of the waters around Spivey Point, and steered a coarse inland, toward Antonio Bay. 24 hours before the town’s centennial. What was meant to be the celebration of a small, sea-side town’s growth and community over the course of one hundred years, became the public unearthing of a surreptitious deed carried out by the forefathers of Antonio Bay.

John Carpenter’s “THE FOG” was introduced to me via an old KODAK VHS recording, housed within a dusty tape drawer in my parent’s living room. An “ABC Sunday Night Movie”, presented proudly in star-spangled vibrancy, the tape plunged me into the sleepy, sea-side town of Antonio Bay, and despite a few instances of darkness bathed within some tracking snow, I sat in the floor completely absorbed in the siege of this town by the rotting ghosts of a leper colony that came back to collect after their murder and subsequent robbery one hundred years ago.

Over the decades, I’ve made a habit of watching “THE FOG”  every April 21st via VHS, DVD and eventually Blu-Ray, celebrating the “true” beginning of Spring (if you live in the northeast, you know that the actual  first day of spring is likely in name-only, as you trudge to work through inches of fresh snow one year, or with the windows down the following). Like Carpenter’s Halloween, “THE FOG” was always a go-to for a certain time of the year for me. Its aesthetic of a warm, breezy coastal town always matched well with the gentle, rain-scented breeze billowing my curtains as I’d lay on the couch and imagined living in this town. Grabbing drinks at the bar with the salty fishermen and hearing their stories of the sea. Maybe sitting precariously on the cliffside and watching the sun set over the waves one evening, while listening to Stevie Wayne broadcast her show from the lighthouse.

And what it would be like if that eerie, glowing fog did roll in. What would I do? Easy, right? Stay inside. Bolt the doors. Lock the windows. Hunker down and hope that it blows past. Pray that I’m not (or related to) “one of the six”.

It’s 2020 now, and the horror community is celebrating the 40th Anniversary of “THE FOG.” And it happens during one of the deadliest pandemics since the Spanish flu of 1918. And a government-mandated quarantine for all non-essential employees has kept us, well…behind bolted doors and locked windows, hoping it blows past.

“THE FOG,” at its core, is a classic ghost story about revenge from beyond the grave. A campfire tale, quite literally, as the film opens with John Houseman’s pitch-perfect prologue as a weathered former sea captain Mr. Machen, regaling the haunting stories of his youth to a group of children on the shores of Antonio Bay. All huddled together, listening intently. Wide eyes around a crackling fire, absorbing the captain’s tale of the doomed ship Elizabeth Dane. Carpenter and his co-writer/producer Debra Hill have steered us in a slightly different direction than they did with their previous smash hit, Halloween in 1978. Our threat is no longer the silent psychotic stalking us from the shadows of suburbia. It’s a sleepy, comfortable supernatural story that feels culled from the pages of Poe. It even begins with a quote from Poe’s poem, “A Dream Within A Dream.”

Upon its release, the film didn’t garner the same visceral reaction Halloween did two years prior, neither critically or commercially. But it stands as one of Carpenter’s masterpieces now, and at 40, it looks better than ever, frankly. With most films of the ’80s, there’s a vibe or style that roots it to the decade, but “THE FOG” could take place in any time, any era, and still maintain its near-Gothic menace. Like Halloween, it’s the well-honed suspense and use of that full, 2.35:1 widescreen that gives us a reason to fear the darker corners of the screen. But unlike its predecessor, “THE FOG” paints a softer picture. Michael Myers might have re-shaped the sharp edges of suburbia to make it more menacing, but something about eerie silhouettes with glowing red eyes lurking around the sleepy fishing town on the coast is almost relaxing. If Halloween was the gnarled, frightening tree that scraped your window at night, “THE FOG” was the hammock tied to it that you drifted peacefully to sleep on. And that’s why its shocks and moments of violence are so jarring. The threat came in with the breeze while you drifting off listening to the water.

The connection between “THE FOG”s 40th Anniversary and our current situation occurred to me recently when I, like so many others, received a knock at my door. Four soft raps, like the warning knocks of the specters within the fog itself. It was a delivery I expected. Pizza. I walked to my front door, sniggering to myself, thinking, “Heh, I feel like Tom Atkins in “THE FOG.” I’ll open the door to…no one.”

And I did. I blinked into the dusk, briefly surprised that the silhouette of someone standing there with my pizza and breadsticks wasn’t darkening my doorway. No, the dinner was sat carefully to my right, on the porch. Boxes taped up. The sound of a delivery car’s busted muffler buzzing away in the distance. It was like Halloween in an alternate reality. Someone wearing a mask, knocking on my door, not expecting candy, but rather dropping off food and disappearing into the blue-orange haze of the evening. This is just how its done now.

A poignancy and sadness seem to have understandably covered a lot of us during this time. This “new normal” without a real clear-cut finishing line is something we’re all having to get used to. We’re prioritizing differently now. Getting out only when we must. Covering up in ways that make many of us look like we’re about to rob a bank, and no one bats an eye. Busy streets and traffic seem like a memory when you do venture out and see empty roads and parking lots. It’s a ghost town out there. I watched my young son flying a kite one afternoon in the front yard and seeing him run with the kite flying behind him, laughing happily, struck me hard for one reason. He was wearing gloves and a mask over his smile. It immediately felt dystopian and sad, and I was shocked at how quickly it lumped in my throat.

The few positives of all this? We’re appreciating people we took for granted before. Restaurant and grocery workers. Delivery drivers. Medical professionals. Teachers who are sending well-wishes and assignments via remote schooling. People we certainly appreciate and thank any other time, are now front-line heroes in world where we rely on them for our very livelihoods, for items and care that we gave no real second-thought to. And we’re re-connecting with our families. Dusting off old board games, digging out those movies you wanted to get to and never had time. A kitchen table surrounded by parents and their kids for card games is now the new “Friday Night.” And that’s okay! Some of us need this time. Some of us could use it and didn’t know it.

“The core connection between both our current situation and Carpenter’s film is disease.”

These positives that we can glean from this uncertain time is often difficult to see and harder still to hold on to. Like the lighthouse that WKAB broadcasts from, the beacon of happiness or even comfort seems to shine briefly, spinning back into inky darkness before returning. A constant rotation of fear, hope, fear, hope. We need that beacon, we need that soft, relaxing voice to get us through the worst of it. Someone to hold the mic and keep us grounded. There’s very little healthy substance to watching 24-hour news cycles. It does little good for our mental health to watch the mortality rate rise, or the continual shots of body bags on stretchers being wheeled to the morgue, and then hearing that those very morgues are stacked to capacity. I always wondered why there isn’t a third ticker on any of these screens. Just a tally of people who were infected and got over this horrible illness – a number that, I’d hope, far outweighs the grim totals we see all the time.

We have very little control right now, outside of just maintaining our current health, and staying in unless absolutely necessary to leave. We have little control over the outcome of all this beyond our own household. And we have no control over what others do. Charles Cypher’s character in “THE FOG,” is that of the cocky weather station guy, Dan O’Bannon. “You’ve seen fog once, you’ve seen it for life”, he smirks while brushing off the warnings Stevie Wayne (played wonderfully by Adrienne Barbeau) is desperately trying to get through to him. At that moment, we know he’s doomed, even before we hear the heavy knocks at his door. Some people just don’t listen. Some people are just too proud. In a horror film, we love to hate them, knowing full-well that their demise is going to be horrific, but earned. In the real world, consequences have a butterfly effect. The character of O’Bannon, though harmless, is clearly a “tough guy”. He pines for the sexy voice on the radio that he gets to chat with every night, undeterred by gentle rebuffs of his advances. We get the feeling during their conversations that he asks her out every night, and every night she politely turns him down. His persistence is irksome. So when the threat comes to his door, we’re not entirely surprised (nor particularly worried for him) when he gets to puff out his chest and play valiant, lying the phone on the table so his “mystery lady” can hear him give these hooligans what for. He’s dead seconds later.

So when we see and hear about the blatant ignorance of people who defy every warning and every precaution shouted from the lighthouse radio, and still venture outside unprotected with this false sense of security and self-pride they shroud themselves in, it’s difficult to sympathize with them when the hook slips from the fog and buries itself in their jugular. Tempting fate out of ignorance, stupidity, a weird sense of conspiracy, or – and God, I hate this – a differing political opinion, doesn’t at all make sense as the body count rises around them. When people are forced to mourn the deaths of loved ones to this horrible disease from their homes, and last respects are denied. A hole in the hearts of millions appear to mean little to those who think their right to live how they want to are being squashed by someone who just wants to flatten the curve. It might seem callous, but Cypher’s weatherman deserved the hook in the throat for his cavalier attitude to the situation at hand. The people who insist on protesting or remaining exposed on their jaunts outside without the proper protection are reflecting the same attitude, frankly. I’ve no more sympathy for those of them that are startled by a violent coughing fit that signals a couple weeks of misery – if not worse – than I did for O’Bannon The Weather Guy. Those they infect, however, will be further victims of their carelessness. Darwin Awards shouldn’t include collateral damage, and no one who died in “THE FOG” was a victim to another character’s idiocy. Everyone knew the risks once they were present.

The core connection between our current situation and Carpenter’s film is disease. The downfall of Blake’s colony was the leprosy that Antonio Bay’s founders, including Patrick Malone, who’s hidden journal documented the conspiracy, were afraid of. Blake, a wealthy man with a fortune in gold, wanted only to settle with his infected colony and live out their days north of Antonio Bay. They were willing to pay handsomely and bother no one. Fearing the contagious nature of their disease, the founders used a fog bank (thought to be “heaven sent”) and a campfire to lure Blake’s ship to what might appear to be shore, but instead led them through the jagged rocks that ultimately wrecked the ship and sent them to their doom in 1880. Leprosy didn’t kill Blake and his crew. Trusting someone to do the right thing did.

COVID-19, a near-biblical disease, has swept in from the East, and made fast work of decimating a wide population of people around the globe, and leaving those who have survived in its wake with memories of misery, respiratory infections, and no doubt some PTSD from fearing for their very lives for days on end. I suspect several its survivors stifling a panic attack at the slightest cough or congestion that washes over them in the future. The biggest and most disturbing aspect of this whole thing is the uncertainty. Despite our best efforts, we could easily contract the disease doing something absent-minded – getting the mail, forgetting to wipe down a box of macaroni before cooking and not washing your hands afterward. There’s no finishing line in sight, no real leadership, no known cure, and no guarantee that a second wave isn’t imminent.

“THE FOG” has the luxury of being what it is, and always was. A ghost story. A 24-hour nightmare for its victims that ended when the clock struck midnight. The fog pulled back across the waves, and evaporated into the night, taking its hidden threats with it. The trees, tombstones, docks, alleyways and that precipitous stairway down to the WKAB lighthouse were now clear of its weaving, formless mass. Blake and his colony, satisfied with their bloodletting, returning to their graves below the ocean, leaving the residents of Antonio Bay with their own PTSD. One that something as common and natural as a rolling fogbank on the shore could make them lock their doors and windows extra tight. One that left them calling their children home in a panic and holding them close – hoping and praying it will pass without stopping to knock. I’d trade a fear of the fog any day to be able to sit in those bars and talk to those fishermen. To listen to Stevie Wayne’s voice lull me to sleep on a boat rocking gently on the waves during sundown. It seems, in a sad, eerie way, almost an ideal reality compared to what we’re living through right now.

We’re not as lucky as Antonio Bay in that regard. We have no visual, no sensor, no obvious protection. At least, as Carpenter and Hill’s film celebrates its 40th Anniversary, we can escape to Antonio Bay for 90 minutes and let the familiar sights and sounds of the town and its colorful characters pull our minds away from what lurks outside our doors, and listen to Stevie Wayne’s warning with a newfound perspective.

It came to destroy us, and in one moment, it will vanish. If this has been anything but a nightmare, and we don’t wake up to find ourselves safe in our beds, it could come again. To the fans at home who can read my message, stay home, stay safe. And just watch “THE FOG.”

Cover designed by Mondo illustrator Jessica Seamans

SEVEN SERMONS is one satisfying listening experience, and one which truly benefits from repeated spins. This is an album that pays dividends over time, but that can also be enjoyed in small chunks and short bursts. It would be disingenuous to compare Missionary Work with much of the current synthwave crop, and Montenegro is doing a fine job at carving out a niche for himself as one of the most promising talents of the indie electronic scene. Let’s just refer to Missionary Work as something intriguing, progressive and profoundly enjoyable—the sort of artist for whom many fans of dark, horror-influenced neo-soundtrack tunes have been waiting.

Andrea Subissati
Executive editor; Rue Morgue Magazine