Good old John Carpenter. The master of suspense who isn’t Alfred Hitchcock. Well I haven’t seen that many of his films (the other main one has already been covered) and I did not enjoy The Thing one bit, but I was lucky enough to catch this one when I was about 14 and obsessed with Jamie Lee Curtis’s horror films. I’d already had to endure the shitfest that was Terror Train and was moderately happy with Prom Night but I was very impressed with this.
The film opens with the eerie Mr Machen telling ghost stories to the children of Antonio Bay, a town which is due to celebrate its 100th birthday. Once the clock strikes midnight a whole bunch of weird things start happening around the town such as car alarms going off, bottles rattling, payphones ringing randomly and glass shattering involuntarily. Then a group of sailors out at sea get lost in a fog bank and murdered by ghosts.
The next day we follow three different sets of characters – Nick Castle is a sailor and picks up a young hitchhiker Elizabeth and they go to investigate the missing boat; Stevie Wayne runs the local radio station and her son finds a piece of driftwood from an old shipwreck; Kathy Williams is the chairwoman of the centennial celebrations and she and her assistant discover the priest Father Malone’s grandfather’s journal uncovering the town’s dark secret.
Out of all the different sub-genres of horror films, I think ghost stories are probably the ones with the best chance of being scary. This film is incredibly atmospheric, making great use of dark lighting, creepy music and very little gore much like Halloween before that. I think this film is generally more effective at creating a sense of dread than Halloween though both are great films. The fog itself is something that can be genuinely frightening, especially if there’s a lot of it and you’re out at sea. The fog here acts the same way that the dark would normally be for us – we don’t know what’s in it because we can’t see anything, therefore anything could be hiding in the fog. There is a bit of gore and some pretty graphic death scenes – after all it is ghost sailors stabbing people to death with hooks. In a similar situation to the likes of The Birds and Night of the Living Dead, the protagonists all end up barricading themselves inside in a church while the ghosts advance on them, creating that sense of claustrophobia and of being surrounded. This is also contrasted with the sense of isolation that Stevie has, trapped in her radio station on a lighthouse and forced to climb on the roof to escape.
If you’ve seen other Carpenter films then this film’s cast will seem like a bit of a treat as we have several of his favourites starring here. Jamie Lee Curtis is in her second film since Halloween playing Elizabeth, quite different to Laurie Strode. She does keep her trademark scream queen status though, as she does scream quite a bit and well of course. Her mother Janet Leigh also has a starring role as Mrs Williams, though they don’t have that much interaction and are only onscreen together in the final scenes – this and Halloween H20 (where they do interact) are the only films they starred in together. Also from Halloween we have Nancy Loomis (formerly Annie, now Sandy) and Charles Cyphers (formerly a sheriff, now a weatherman). And from the future Halloween III there’s Tom Atkins playing Nick. Our leading lady is also Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau whom I haven’t seen in anything else besides her guest appearance on Sabrina The Teenage Witch, but I know how big her resume is. John Houseman has a cameo at the start telling one of the best cinematic ghost stories and Hal Holbrook of course does a nice job as Father Malone. It’s also interesting to note that characters Nick Castle, Dan O’Bannon and Tommy Wallace are named after people John Carpenter had worked with before so if you’re a big Carpenter fan then that’s another treat for you. And as well in the tradition of iffy child actors we also have young Ty Mitchell as Andy who does alright but not great, the majority of his lines seem to consist of him saying “Mrs Kobritz?” in a scared voice.
It’s also quite interesting that as the star of the film Adrienne Barbeau has only one short scene with another actor and spends the rest of the film alone in the lighthouse, her only interactions with the rest of the cast happening through phone calls and her radio broadcasts. Indeed it’s a little theme I enjoy where the cast starts out separate and then comes together in the third act, like Love Actually.
My favourite scenes would probably be the latter ones where the fog starts actively attacking people, specifically where Stevie’s son Andy is alone in the house with his babysitter and the fog surrounds them. This being a Carpenter film, of course the babysitter isn’t going to be much help so the suspense of Andy trapped in his room as a hook starts breaking through the door is pretty exciting, as well as the part where Nick and Elizabeth are in the car and are surrounded by the fog with the ghosts advancing on them and naturally the car won’t start. And of course I have to enjoy the final confrontation in the church, definitely reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead where they’re trying to keep the ghosts out and trying to work out how to get rid of them.
This film does have a perfect atmosphere and I definitely enjoyed the story that was being told, as well as the ensemble cast. I was almost annoyed that it was so short, as I feel it could have gone on for a whole lot longer. It doesn’t even clock 90 minutes. But I do still feel that it was a satisfying little horror film and more than “a minor horror classic” as Carpenter described it. It’s a rare thing of an 80s horror film that’s actually good so that’s an achievement all on its own. Sadly this is the only other John Carpenter film on my list so I’ll give him a wave farewell and tell all of you to keep watching the skies. Until next time, and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.