"In France, I'm an auteur. In England, I'm a horror movie director. In Germany, I'm a filmmaker. In the US, I'm a bum." Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. John Carpenter — at once genius and buffoon. But if on occasion circumstance has been his worst enemy (most notably when the release of Village Of The Damned in 1995 coincided with the death of several children in the Oklahoma bombing), he only really has himself to blame.
Boasting an "eclectic" filmography, to say the least, this is the man who has taken us on a journey through the sublime (Halloween, The Thing), the ridiculous (Prince Of Darkness, Memoirs Of An Invisible Man) and the, frankly, crap (Christine, Escape From LA). When he's bad, he sucks. But thankfully, when he's good, he's very, very good. One of the most immediately identifiable directors of his generation — as Kurt "Snake Plissken" Russell once told him: "You can see ten seconds of any of your movies and know they're yours" — he can capture a mood, build tension and play his trump card all in one fell swoop. An auteur (sorry, but the French are right), indeed.
The film, however, that he cites as one of his most arduous also happens to be one of his most audacious, one of his most visually impressive and one of his most heartfelt. Not that Carpenter was initially happy with it, of course. An attempt at something "A little bit H.P. Lovecraft," The Fog's problems were twofold. "It's not that it was technically difficult," said Carpenter afterwards, "it was - the balance that was problematic. Getting the tempo right." Come post-production (and this is after - he'd already re-shot "about a third T of it"), the issue became exacerbated, with Carpenter so convinced of the film's "flatness" that he hastily wrote a score (another indelible thumbprint) to save it from the critical mauling he feared would follow.
He needn't have worried. For, while the score's characteristic synth brilliance (Carpenter insits that he only employs himself as composer because he is both "cheap and on time") helps to build a taut, chilling atmosphere, the final result is quite possibly the most criminally underrated horror film of the last two decades. Wasting no time from the get-go, a crusty old salt dispenses the plot to a group of young boys around a campfire. In a two minute prologue, Carpenter sets a scene that would have taken most directors half an hour to deliver. Where he does stretch his legs is in the credit sequence, establishing Leigh's adage that "This town sits around for 100 years and nothing happens, and then one night the whole place falls apart" via a number of individual scenes (with Hitchcockian references, as well as nods to Poe, Jaws and Carrie). The pirates — sort of seafaring horsemen of the apocalypse, carried inland in the glowing fog that is their harbinger — are wonderful. A silent, plodding menace out for revenge having been tricked into running their ship aground, who are as unwilling to negotiate in any way as Carpenter's previous incarnation of terror, Michael Myers.
This is neither the time nor the place for wisecracking embodiments of evil. Barbeau, meanwhile, is superb, trapped by a sense of grim responsibility in her isolated lighthouse. And it's incredibly funny. As well as a Carpenter cameo there is some priceless dialogue (Kathy: "Sandy, you're the only person who can make 'Yes, ma'am' sound like 'Screw you.'" Sandy: "Yes, ma'am"). Many character names (Dr. Phibes, the coroner, among them) are aimed with arch precision; in particular Dan O'Bannon (Carpenter's classmate, with whom he made Dark Star in 1973) and Tommy Wallace (his production designer). Special effects supremo Rob Bottin also doubles as head pirate Blake, while Barbeau's last line, "Look for the fog..." echoes that from 1951's The Thing From Another World (remade by Carpenter 31 years later); and the band mentioned on air is The Coupe De Villes, Carpenter and Co.'s, as yet unsigned, rock combo.
Most significant, though, is the film's intention. Having publicly apologised (admittedly with tongue firmly in cheek) for the glut of misogynistic slasher fare that flowed after his original "masked killer" feature, this is arguably Carpenter's personal antidote. Pure, clean, the flipside of its contemporaries.