It’s not just Janet Leigh being in the film or all the trouble–visibly–starting when Jamie Lee Curtis arrives in town, it’s everything about The Fog–it’s an aware Hitchcock homage. The list can continue with the setting, the reference to The Birds, but it’s even more. There’s a definite feel to the film; Carpenter seemingly (he really doesn’t, since the film’s only ninety minutes) dedicates a bunch of time to the character development.
He’s got that fantastic introduction to Adrienne Barbeau’s character. There’s her talking to admirer Charles Cyphers on the phone to showcase her actual personality (versus her radio personality), the guys on the boat talking about her, then, a few scenes later, there are the backstory heavy photographs and newspaper clippings. It takes almost no time, but Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill create this incredibly full character. I think the line about her grocery shopping does a lot of work in about four seconds.
Hill’s contributions to the script can’t be overlooked–besides Barbeau’s fine character, there’s also the almost passive–but touching–romance between Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s so passive, it’s hard to even call it a romance, but it’s there and the scenes are great. Atkins is the closest thing the film’s got to a leading man and he’s fantastic–his character’s also very Hitchcockian. The film’s got six principles–Barbeau, Atkins, Curtis, Leigh, Nancy Keyes and Hal Holbrook. Leigh and Keyes spend most of the film together–another great relationship–while Barbeau and Holbrook are mostly solo. Holbrook’s part is only significant at the beginning and end, so the film’s almost three–Barbeau the radio deejay, Atkins and Curtis’s wild ride, and Leigh and Keyes working on the town’s anniversary celebration.
The anniversary celebration, which is handled extremely carefully, just shows off what a great job Carpenter does with limited money here. Everything gives the impression of majesty, mostly due to Carpenter’s fine Panavision composition and Dean Cundey’s lush color palate (another Hitchcock similarity). It’s an incredibly tight script and the majority of the film doesn’t have a single misstep. There’s Cyphers in his small role and he’s great. Darwin Jostin has a cameo, he’s great. It’s all great… until the end.
The end falls apart slowly, maybe because it’s hurried. After spending so much time with Curtis and Atkins (and Leigh and Keyes), seeing them pushed aside for Holbrook to take over–while Barbeau awkwardly narrates–really knocks away at the picture.
The film opens slowly and quietly. You’ve got John Houseman telling a story. Houseman’s definitely got the voice for it. It’s gradual, ominous and full of mood. The ending is fast, loud and neon.
The performances are all good, especially Barbeau (until the end, she can’t make her monologues sound good, no one could), Atkins, Keyes and Curtis. Atkins is such an assured leading man, it’s hard to believe he never played one again (maybe he did, but I’ve sure never seen it). Barbeau’s character is so interesting, she could have played her in a straight, non-genre picture and it probably would have been even better.
It’s great filmmaking, it’s just a problematic film.