John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ Covers the Coastal Towns Again in a Beautiful 4K Restoration

 

The Fog 4K Restoration posterThe Fog” remains one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. Every time a fog bank appears in whatever town I happen to be in, I immediately put on his score to the film and start playing its theme song. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” “The Fog” is, for me, one of the most iconic Northern California horror movies ever made as it captures the beauty of coast near Bodega Bay and beyond while enthralling you with a number of terrifying images.

Rialto Pictures has now released a 4K restoration of “The Fog,” and seeing it again on the big screen proves to be a real treat. Granted, this Carpenter movie has been restored previously for the special edition MGM DVD and Shout Factory’s Blu-ray collector’s edition, and the results were truly astonishing. But just when I thought the image couldn’t be improved upon any further, along comes this restoration which looks truly pristine and clear to where the image, if you’ll excuse the expression, isn’t as foggy as it once was.

“The Fog” takes place in the coastal town of Antonio Bay which is about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its formation, but we soon discover it was actually built on blood and theft. Father Malone (the great Hal Holbrook) discovers a diary hidden in the walls of his church written by his grandfather, and it tells of how he and five of the town’s founders deliberately plundered and sunk a clipper ship named the Elizabeth Dane. The owner of the ship was Blake, a wealthy man looking to establish a leper colony, but he and his crew ended up being murdered, and the gold found on their ship was used to build the town and its church.

Now Blake and his crew are back to get their revenge against the offspring of the town’s founders and retrieve their gold. Once you are surrounded by the fog to where Blake and his crew have you in their sights, it is too late to escape. There is a Klingon proverb which tells of how revenge is a dish best served cold, and it is served here very coldly to where we are quickly reminded of the movie’s tagline:

“It won’t hurt you. IT’LL KILL YOU.”

Watching “The Fog” for the umpteenth time, I am reminded of what a brilliant cinematographer Dean Cundey is as his lighting helps to make the movie’s central nemesis all the more mysterious and devilishly suffocating. The dark of the night is made to look especially chilling as things constantly leap out of it, and Blake and his crew are largely kept in the shadows as neither Cundey or Carpenter want to reveal too much of the monster to the audience.

This was Carpenter’s and the late Debra Hill’s first movie after “Halloween,” and I can understand why audiences felt a little let down by “The Fog” when it arrived in theaters. The anticipation for something usually ends up being more exciting than the finished product as our minds are filled with the possibilities of what we think will end up on the silver screen, but not everything comes out the way we want it to. It’s an unfair obstacle that filmmakers often have to deal with when following up such a successful motion picture, and sometimes we need to revisit certain movies like these years later to give them a much-needed reassessment.

More than 30 years have passed since Carpenter’s “The Fog” was released, and I like to think it has gotten better over time. In terms of atmospheric horror movies, I see it as one of the best. Those low-flying clouds are always a fascinating sight as well as a scary one. When the visibility is practically zero, you cannot help but feel trapped in the fog as it makes you believe the world has cut you off. Carpenter captures this feeling here as the fog proves to be thick and infinitely suffocating. There’s no escaping it or what is inside of it as those not smart enough to run away from it are almost deserving of the fate about to greet them.

Carpenter assembled a terrific cast of actors for “The Fog,” many of whom became regulars in his later movies. John Houseman gets things off to a chilling start as he recounts the story of the Elizabeth Dane in a way which feels vivid and probably helped the producers save money to where an actual recreation of the event he talks about proved completely unnecessary. Houseman was a brilliant actor who somehow managed to walk the line of doing work for either the love of the theatre or instead a nice paycheck, and I like to believe he did “The Fog” for the former. Still, I am often reminded of what the late Robin Williams said about the advice Houseman gave him while he was a student at Julliard:

“The theatre needs you. I’m going off to sell Volvos.”

Tom Atkins co-stars as town resident Nick Castle (lol) who is quick to pick up hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis) and later have sex with her before asking the question often heard in movies of the late 70’s and early 80’s, “What’s your name?” Atkins showed what a confident lady’s man he was here, and he later built on this confidence to terrific and hilarious effect in “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.”

“The Fog” also marked the film debut of Adrienne Barbeau, and the camera loves her here. As single mom and local radio disc jockey Stevie Wayne, Barbeau gives this Carpenter movie the strong female character it needs and deserves. Stevie is not a person to back down from danger and, like Laurie Strode, she is very observant of everything going on around her. When Barbeau’s voice is giving you more than enough of a reason to listen to jazz music on a regular basis, she keeps you on the edge of your seat as she fends off the bloodthirsty mariners hiding in the fog in ways her male counterparts fail to.

And, of course, I have to mention Carpenter’s score as I remain as big a fan of his music as I do of his movies. His main theme for “The Fog” is one of his most memorable as it has the same rapid pace of his “Halloween” theme. The musical stings pack a wallop in certain scenes where ghostly hands reach out of the fog to grab at unsuspecting victims who think this is the work of kids, and his other big theme in “The Fog” is “Reel 9” which brings the movie to its riveting climax in which the mariners close in on the townspeople who have no place to escape certain death.

Carpenter has described “The Fog” as being one of his least favorite movies as its initial cut proved to be very disappointing, and he had to reshoot and rescore much of it before its release. Whatever the case, it is a wonderfully atmospheric horror movie which stands among his finest works, and watching this 4K restoration of it reminds one of why certain movies play best on the silver screen.

It’s also fun to watch a movie made back in the pre-digital age when cell phones and GPS were not around to save our heroes. Instead, they had to deal with landlines, a desperate DJ and the limits of technology. After watching “The Fog” again in this day and age, I kept waiting for one of the characters to say the following:

“It’s just you, me, and my Thomas Guide.”

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: The Birds

The Birds movie poster

I spent a large portion of my youth growing up in Northern California, and we were always reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when we saw a flock of them fly by. I’ve been to a number of the locations in San Francisco and Bodega Bay where this classic movie was made, but I have never actually seen it all the way through until recently. Still, it was one of those films we felt we all had seen as we are aware of its story and are constantly reminded of its existence when we see birds in the sky or in a park feeding on leftover crumbs.

It took a 50th anniversary screening of “The Birds” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to finally give me a reason to actually see it. Seeing the movie at the world famous theater made it all the more entertaining as this Hitchcock classic probably hasn’t looked this good in years. But I was especially impressed with the movie’s sound design which proved to be of an assault on our eardrums. It made you wonder if the birds were going to kill the humans by pecking them to death, or if their insane chirping and screeching would be the end of us instead.

Tippi Hedren is absolutely sublime as Melanie Daniels, a socialite who strikes up a conversation with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a lawyer who “mistakes” her for a salesperson at a bird shop. When it turns out Mitch was just teasing Melanie as he knew all along she wasn’t an employee but instead someone he remembered from a court case, she gets all pissed and looks to one up him. So she drives out to Bodega Bay, a small coastal town in Northern California where Mitch spends the weekends with his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his sister Cathy (a very young Veronica Cartwright). And that’s when the birds start to attack…

Bodega Bay is really a perfect location for a horror movie; a small seaside town which looks so peaceful and isolated from the rest of the world. But it’s this isolation which dooms the humans in “The Birds” as many of them can’t see outside their little town for any possible escape. Many people come to these small towns to get away from big city life, but if it’s bad in Bodega Bay when these birds attack, imagine how bad it must be in San Francisco with them all perched over the Golden Gate Bridge, just waiting to launch another bloodthirsty assault.

The first bird attack actually doesn’t happen until about a half hour or so, and I don’t imagine any filmmaker, even Hitchcock, getting away with this today except Steven Spielberg. Studio executives would probably be saying, “Can you introduce the bird attacks any sooner?” But this is okay because Hitchcock is clearly having fun with Melanie and Mitch as they play cat and mouse games with each other. The scene where Melanie sneaks into Mitch’s home so she can secretly give him a present is very suspenseful as I kept expecting Mitch to pop up in the doorway at any second. His reaction to what Melanie has gotten away with is priceless.

When a seagull attacks Melanie while she is on a boat, it completely catches us off guard as we have become so wrapped up in the chemistry between her and Mitch. Indeed, it’s the human characters I wondered more about than the birds themselves. Each person Melanie comes into contact with appears to have some sort of hidden agenda you are itching to figure out before the movie ends. With the birds, it’s not hard to figure out what their agenda is.

Hitchcock made “The Birds” a few years after “Psycho,” and it shows him still having a thing for overbearing mothers. Tandy is wonderful in portraying her deep-seated suspicions about Melanie without words, and I kept thinking she had some evil plan going on behind those eyes of hers. Like Mrs. Bates, she’s a little too overprotective of who her son goes out with.

Then there’s the local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (the alluring Suzanne Pleshette) who was once in a relationship with Mitch, and she keeps eyeing Melanie ever so seductively when talking about him. Annie tells Melanie she and Mitch remain the best of friends as she smokes a cigarette (which, like it or not, still looks glamorous onscreen), but what does Annie really mean? Pleshette makes Annie a very enigmatic character, and it’s like she’s daring you to look deeper into those beautiful eyes of hers.

Granted, the special effects in “The Birds” these days look a bit campy and haven’t aged well. Then again, they still look better than anything in “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” Hitchcock shoots the bird attacks in the same way he shot the shower scene in “Psycho;” with a lot of quick cuts which gives you the illusion you’re seeing more than what’s onscreen. This is especially the case when Melanie ventures upstairs to the room which the birds have broken into. The editing is all over the place, and it makes the attack seem all the more painfully brutal as a result.

I loved how Hitchcock just strings the audience along throughout and manages to stay one step ahead of them. M. Night Shyamalan has been desperately trying to do this with many of his movies, but Hitchcock remains the master when it comes to generating suspense. He’s careful not to give too much away, and he always keeps you wondering what will happen next. At the movie’s end, many questions are left unanswered and the fates of certain characters remain up in the air, but this makes the experience all the more terrifying even after the lights come up in the theatre. Hitchcock is not interested in giving the audience an easy way out, and “The Birds” stays with you long after it has ended.

One image which will forever stay with me is the scene at the school where Melanie waits outside as the children sing “Wee Cooper O’Fife,” and she doesn’t notice the dozens of birds which are perched on the jungle gym behind her. You want to yell at her and say “look behind you,” and when it is revealed just how many birds are there, you feel her sheer terror as she sees for herself the danger everyone is in. Keep in mind, this movie was made long before CGI effects were even a tiny thought in somebody’s head, and this makes Hitchcock’s work with the birds all the more impressive.

Actually, looking back at the scene makes me wonder what would be more horrifying. Could it be that those birds are ready to fly up and attack the children at any given moment, or that someone is going to have clean up all the bird shit that you know will be covering the jungle gym after they fly away? With so many birds, that piece of equipment is never going to get fully cleaned. Once the kids find out what happened, you will be lucky to get any of them playing on it again!

I loved the movie’s last half where Melanie and Mitch are hiding in his family’s home which has been completely boarded up to keep the birds from getting inside. It’s at this point the film becomes a master class in sound design as the birds’ screeching (much of it created with an electroacoustic Trautonium) becomes far more unnerving than seeing them attack humans. We don’t see many birds, but we hear them and see all sorts of holes being poked in the doors as they fight their way inside. It’s one of the many brilliantly staged scenes Hitchcock has ever put together as he sticks us right inside the house with the characters to where we feel their isolation and terror over what will happen if the birds find a way inside.

I also loved how cool Hedren is as Melanie Daniels. She gives this icy blonde a seductive confidence which makes you want to follow her to ends of the earth, and it’s easy to see how this type of character came to inform many of Paul Verhoeven’s movies (“Basic Instinct” in particular). It’s a tragedy Hitchcock ruined Hedren’s career out of his unhealthy obsession with her, and his treatment of her casts a dark shadow over the legacy of “The Birds.” Needless to say, Hedren still walks through life with her head held high which says a lot about her.

It’s also a kick to see Veronica Cartwright here as it helps to certify her status as one of the great scream queens in horror movies. These days we know her best from her terrifying turns as Lambert in “Alien” and in Philip Kaufman’s remake of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but this was the first horror movie which she appeared in, and she was only 12 years old at the time (she turned 13 during its making). After all these years, Cartwright remains a fascinating actress to watch.

Perhaps “The Birds” would have had a stronger effect on me had I watched it on its 25th anniversary instead. But the fact it holds up so well after half a century says a lot about Hitchcock’s brilliance behind the camera, a brilliance many filmmakers still pray to have in their own careers. Still, more than thirty years after his death, there is still no topping Hitchcock as the master of suspense. To those who wish to try, all I can say is good luck. You’re gonna need it.

* * * * out of * * * *