Fog: Collector's Edition, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe knows better than to answer a knock at the door on a foggy night...
The sleepy seaside village of Antonio Bay is about to learn the true meaning of the word ‘vengeance.’ For this seemingly perfect town masks a guilty secret...a past steeped in greed and murder. Exactly 100 years ago, a ship was horribly wrecked under mysterious circumstances in a thick, eerie fog. Now, shrouded in darkness, the long dead mariners have returned from their watery grave to exact a bloody revenge. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
‘Knife ghosts!’ stab stab stab stab.
The Fog marked the first time John Carpenter was handed a decent budget ($1 million in 1980 dollars) and wide release, following the surprise success of Halloween. Carpenter, who was also coming off the success of his made-for-television Elvis biopic, took the opportunity to make something a little more ambitious. With Halloween, Carpenter had turned a ‘job for hire’ and turned it into a subgenre-defining ode to pure suspense. Unfortunately, the films that followed Halloween were (for the most part) far less stylistically inspired and graphic gore became the name of the game. Not that graphic gore isn’t awesome – it just works better in the hands of a great filmmaker, like Carpenter, who apparently wasn’t ready to embrace it just yet. The Fog, which was originally conceived as a PG-rated feature, was too ‘old-fashioned’ for audiences of the era and wasn’t quite the hit the director needed as his first ‘studio’ feature (relatively speaking, AVCO Embassy was a major-minor studio). Fortunately, it would also start the long, proud tradition of John Carpenter films becoming cult films that made money on the home video market.
Not that The Fog isn’t one of Carpenter’s weaker good movies (which is an indication of a great filmmaker if I ever typed one). It isn’t comparable to fiascos, like Memoirs of an Invisible Man or Village of the Damned, nor is it quite an Escape from L.A. or Ghost of Mars type of entertainingly bad movie – it’s a very good film that never quite settles into greatness, like Prince of Darkness or Christine. Though, even this designation isn’t quite right, because The Fog is one of Carpenter’s more consistent films and, with this consistency, it loses the sporadic highs of Prince of Darkness. It is, at the very least, the unmistakable work of a master finding his trademark. He stumbles here mostly in terms of overall mood. In his efforts to recreate an antiquated brand of spooky, he makes a film that is tonally pretty flat. There’s a weird sense of seriousness that doesn’t gel with the satirical EC Comics that supposedly inspired it, which is too natural to fall in line with the likes of the comparatively melodramatic Hammer Horror films and H.P. Lovecraft stories. Then in an effort to stamp the old-fashioned creepiness with his Halloween signature (after a preview screening, the director himself decided the movie was not scary enough), Carpenter also gets a little carried away with cramming jump scares into the eeriness. These may have played better to 1980 audiences, but really lose their rhythm about halfway through the film. As a slice-of-life, non-supernatural drama, The Fog is actually pretty rewarding and is an early glimpse at the kind of strong character studies the director would craft with The Thing and Starman, but, as a horror film, it’s not quite as successful.
The one thing that consistently works in The Fog’s favour, however, is Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey’s wonderful widescreen composition. Cundey, who actually reels in his natural ambition for much of the film, is at his most brilliant when dealing with the film’s fog-heavy sequences. Fog is such a common piece of horror movie shorthand that it’s impossible to say who shot it best, but there’s a lot of evidence here to assume that perhaps Cundey was the absolute master of the visual trope. The ‘trapped in a truck that won’t start’ sequence alone is evocative and beautiful enough to deter future generations from trying to one-up Cundey’s prowess in the field. It’s no big secret that there was a bit of a filmic dialogue going on between Carpenter and his counterparts in Italy. Carpenter cops to taking inspiration from Mario Bava and Dario Argento and filtering it through his American sensibilities. What’s interesting, though, is that Lucio Fulci appears to have taken inspiration from The Fog for his City of the Living Dead and The Beyond imagery. Despite an iconic ability to create a thoroughly gothic atmosphere with layered imagery, neither Fulci nor cinematographer Sergio Salvati were ever able to recreate Carpenter and Cundey’s simpler ambience. Carpenter seemingly returned the favour (note: I’ve never read anything to verify this claim) when he made Prince of Darkness in 1987, which appears very much to have been influenced by Fulci’s maggot-strewn, grotesquely gory masterpieces (hopefully I’ll have a chance to expand these thoughts in September when Scream Factory releases Prince of Darkness on Blu-ray).
The cast is brimming with ‘80s horror favourites performing very well within the limitations of the relatively serious tone. Most of the actors are not permitted to chew the scenery as they normally would and I think the whole film suffers a tiny bit because of it. It’s not often that nepotism in casting is a good idea, but, in this best case scenario, Carpenter hired the then (mostly) unknown Adrienne Barbeau to head his cast, alongside her friend, the also (mostly) unknown Tom Atkins. Both would go on to have long, successful careers in cult classics from the era, including starring alongside each other once again in Escape from New York and George Romero’s Creepshow in subsequent years. From Halloween, Carpenter snagged Jamie Lee Curtis as his sort of secondary lead, along with Charles Cyphers and Nancy Loomis. Then, for good measure, he also brought along Curtis’ mother, horror royalty Janet Leigh. The cast’s all-star is, however, is everyone’s favourite Mark Twain impersonator, Hal Holbrook, who plays an emotionally tortured priest that discovers the town’s dark secret (a character Fulci recycled in the form of a villain for City of the Living Dead).
The release of any pre-‘90s John Carpenter film on Blu-ray is enough reason to celebrate. Hell, even the director’s worst usually looks good enough to benefit from an HD upgrade and the less remarkable HD transfers of his films (the slightly over-scrubbed The Thing and generally dull and disappointing Halloween discs, for example) have been worth owning over their SD counterparts. The Fog was released on Blu-ray in the UK by Optimum in 2008 and was reviewed by our own Scott McKenzie. He was not impressed. Besides telecine wobble, low level noise, and bouts of heavy grain, this transfer was way too bright. The black levels were either devalued to grey or crushed until background details disappeared entirely, and the lighter bits were boosted until they were blooming (as you can see from these images, it was also mis-framed and too warm). The Optimum release was also only 25GB (with reportedly 12GB devoted to video). The image quality of Scream Factory’s new 50GB, 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is, to my eyes, a big upgrade, though not exactly what we’d call perfect – assuming ‘perfection’ is what fans want from this release. Oh, and did I mention it was supervised by Dean Cundey himself? Because it was. First off, Cundey ensures this version is definitely not over-brightened. If anything, I suspect some viewers will complain that it is too dark, but the darker pieces all look pretty natural to me, especially since the obvious focal points are still highlighted clearly enough to discern. Some of the black levels are deep enough to crush minor dark minutiae, but the overall contrast is steady enough to reveal differentiations in darker hues without crushing them.
There’s not much cause to complain about too much DNR here, either, which was a concern for some critics of Scream Factory’s They Live release. There’s plenty of grain sprinkled over the film. The grain levels are a bit inconsistent without ever appearing particularly muddy, outside of a handful of the darker shots. Some daylight exteriors also feature minor print damage artefacts, specifically short scratches. Detail levels aren’t so high that you’d mistake The Fog for a new movie, especially not since, as the title implies, the image quality is often defined by fogginess. When the title substance isn’t involved, edges are sharp, at least those that Cundey is leaving in focus – the anamorphic lenses do make for some softened corners of the frame and some fuzzy backgrounds. At one point, I thought I was seeing CRT-related shimmer effects, but realized that what I was seeing was the natural shimmer of grass blowing in the coastal wind. The colours are very natural (the rolling, grassy hills are gorgeous), except, of course, those times Cundey breaks out the candy-coloured gels to create a Bava/Corman-esque supernatural mood. The more hyperactive hues are very vivid, without any notable blocking effects, and are sharply cut against each other with only minor edge haloes in a few cases. All in all, I think this is a great transfer that looks like what I assumed the film looked like in theaters in 1980. Or at least what Cundey wanted it to look like in 1980.
Scream Factory has fitted The Fog with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, likely based on the one that already accompanied the various MGM DVD releases of the film, and has also included the original mono soundtrack in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The mono version of the soundtrack probably seems like the ideal way to go, since changing the basic make-up of a film’s audio is similar to changing its framing. Unfortunately, the two stereo channels sound a bit out-of-phase on this mono track, which messes with the typical illusion of the sound coming from somewhere around the center. I admit that my stereo speakers are set further apart than many people would prefer, but usually do not have similar problems. The 5.1 track, on the other hand, actually settles the bulk of the sound much more snuggly in the center channel. Dialogue and effects are more consistent in terms of volume levels here, too, and so few effects even find their way into the stereo or surround channels I’m inclined to point even the purists towards the remixed track.
The sound is designed to re-create the spooky noise of unseen terrors going ‘bump’ in the night, so, like Halloween, the bulk of the mix is actually quite quiet. The opening title sequence is a good example of the blending of subtle ambience with much more dramatically dynamic volume (payphones suddenly ringing, cars suddenly honking, objects just out of the camera’s sight shaking on the shelves of a convenience store). As the film continues, Carpenter has a fun with his punchy startle scare cues and develops a more aggressive ‘ghostly’ sound for his undead pirates. The surround enhancements are limited mostly to the immersive ambient noise, like wind and crashing waves (though nothing is very directionally enhanced, aside from some of the off-camera knocks, which are situated either right or left of the viewer) and Carpenter’s wonderfully moody keyboard score. The stereo and LFE enhancements are impressive enough for me to continue pointing to the 5.1 track as the ideal way to experience this release.
Scream Factory has done another fine job in securing the extras from MGM’s previous special edition DVD release alongside a small collection of all-new extras. The classic extras begin with a commentary featuring Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill (who died of cancer in 2005). This is an old news track, sure, but I’ve never heard it before, and frankly, even when he doesn’t care (both Masters of Horror releases), Carpenter gives good commentary. This is a typically informative and personable track, though not quite as fun as those tracks where Carpenter talks with actors like Kurt Russell or Roddy Piper. Assuming a slightly more robotic Carpenter isn’t enough to bother you, this track comes just as highly recommended as the rest. This is followed by a brand new commentary from Barbeau, Atkins, production designer Tommy Lee Wallace, and moderator Sean Clark. This track is a bit more loose and fun. As a person that worked on the film in a technical capacity, Wallace is sort of the center of the track, while Barbeau and Atkins chiming in with a little less regularity. I suppose those fans interested in production design will enjoy this track quite a bit, but I found the subject matter a bit dull following Carpenter and Hill’s track, even if they’re a little more dry in comparison. The new track is a little on the quiet side, as well.
The new stuff continues with My Time with Terror (21:50, HD) an incredibly personably and sweet-natured interview with Jamie Lee Curtis on her horror movie career. Curtis traces Halloween’s slow-moving success, Carpenter and Debra Hill’s break-up, Carpenter making a part for her in The Fog, the awkwardness of working with Carpenter and his new squeeze, Adrienne Barbeau, her breakaway success with the Halloween-inspired Prom Night and Terror Train that cemented her status as a ‘scream queen,’ and her place in Road Games and Halloween II. Dean of Darkness (18:40, HD) is an interview with cinematographer Dean Cundey, who traces his career from film school and B-movies, to his work with Carpenter and subsequent mainstream success. This is followed by a look at the film’s locations with Sean Clark and the good people at Horror's Hallowed Grounds (20:20, HD), and raw footage from special effects tests (2:40, HD).
The most substantial legacy extra, outside of Carpenter and Hill’s commentary, is Tales From The Mist: Inside The Fog (28:00, SD), a retrospective mini-documentary that features cast & crew interviews, including Carpenter, Hill, Wallace, Cundey, and cast members Barbeau and Curtis (with older footage). Other holdovers from the MGM disc include Fear on Film: Inside The Fog (7:40, SD), a brief vintage promotional piece, a storyboard to film comparison (1:30, SD), outtakes (4:10, SD), trailers (4:30, HD), TV spots (3:10, SD), an image gallery (8:00, HD), and storyboards (2:20, HD).
The Fog still isn’t very high on my personal list of best John Carpenter films, but Scream Factory’s classy treatment here makes me more than willing to continue second-guessing myself in the future. The new transfer is vivid and filmic, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 sound is crisp and well-rounded, and the extras, which include new items alongside legacy features from the old MGM DVD, are about as close to comprehensive as I think we’ll ever see from this particular film. An extra special thanks to Matt for supplying the Blu-ray and DVD screencaps.
* Note: The images on this page were taken from the Scream Factory Blu-ray, the Optimum Blu-ray, and the MGM DVD. The full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of each transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 30th July 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Extras: Director and Producer Commentary, Production Designer and Actors Commentary, My Time With Terror, Dean of Darkness, Tales from the Mist: Inside the Fog, Fear On Film, Horror's Hallowed Grounds: The Fog, Storyboard Comparison, Outtakes, Trailers, TV Spots, Special Effects Tests, Image Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh
Length: 90 minutes