The 1980 version of “The Fog” was John Carpenter’s follow-up to his surprise ultra-low budget smash “Halloween.” Now the tale of a bunch of ghostly nineteenth-century mariners who rise from the deep to kill the descendants of the townsmen who were responsible for the shipwreck that caused their deaths, has itself been resuscitated from the DVD depths. (The title derives from the fact that the vengeful spirits stalk their intended prey encased in a deep, forbidding fog that rolls in from the sea.) Perhaps because Carpenter and his producer Debra Hill were directly involved in the remake, the new version is quite remarkably faithful to the old one. That has both drawbacks and virtues. On the one hand, the picture is hardly a masterpiece of construction, lacking the logical inevitability of the best ghost stories and devolving, in the last reels, into a series of spooky set-pieces that might be individually clever but don’t make much overall sense. On the other, though, it’s refreshing to see a contemporary horror movie that eschews the usual splatter effects in favor of something more stylishly old-fashioned (and also one that doesn’t go in for the religiously-themed supernatural stuff that’s so prevalent nowadays). The preference here, as in “Halloween” and the original “Fog,” is for menacing buildups and quick, almost subliminal shocks rather than abundant gore. Whether that will play with modern audiences–especially young viewers–who expect, indeed demand, plenty of really graphic violence is doubtful. But while it might not provide the blood-drenched, in-your-face gruesomeness modern horrorshows are accustomed to do, it’s rather refreshing to encounter an almost quaintly retro thriller that depends more on tension and suggestion than on gross-out effects. It’s curious that the studio steadfastly refused to pre-screen it for critics though it’s shown them fright flicks of far lower quality.
In the revision of the Carpenter-Hill script of a quarter-century ago by Cooper Layne (“The Core”), Tom Welling (Clark Kent of “Smallville”) plays Nick Castle, now the captain of a small charter fishing boat operating from the town of Antonio Bay on an island off the Oregon coast. On one outing that just happens to coincide with a town celebration honoring its four founding fathers, when Nick’s first mate Spooner (DeRay Davis) hoists anchor, it dislodges the wreckage of a clipper ship and thereby unleashes the fog-bound spirits. As is gradually revealed, they’re the ghosts of a group of leprosy-ridden refugees that, back in 1871, the town fathers had betrayed by breaking an agreement to sell them half the island, instead stealing the group’s treasures and then burning the ship with all aboard. Among those who become the spirits’ prey, after their initial assault on Spooner and his chum Sean (Matthew Currie Holmes) during a boat party, are Nick; Elizabeth Williams (Maggie Grace, from “Lost”), Nick’s girlfriend and estranged daughter of the town historian (Sara Botsford); Stevie Wayne (Selma Blair), who runs the local lighthouse and a radio station broadcasting from it, along with her little son Andy (Cole Heppell)–she and Nick have had a fling during Elizabeth’s absence; and Mayor Tom Malone (Kenneth Welsh) and his son, a troubled priest (Adrian Hough). The second half of the movie consists largely of episodes in which some characters are dispatched by the spectral figures while others repeatedly escape.
It’s certainly the case that the cyclical nature of the narrative eventually gets more than a little tiresome, and it’s never made clear why some characters (like Dan the Weatherman, played by Jonathon Young, or the grizzled harbormaster, or Spooner) are even targeted And some of the borrowings from other pictures are rather heavy-handed: the initial assault on the boat, for instance, is strongly reminiscent of “Jaws,” and there’s a final twist that’s straight out of “The Shining.” But happily most of the individual sequences are reasonably well-staged and generate some modest shocks, courtesy of director Rupert Wainwright (who shows a good deal more finesse than he did in the clumsy, self-important “Stigmata”). And the cast plays it all without resorting to the tongue-in-cheek, wink-and-nod attitude so commonplace in horror movies today: though there’s nobody here who can match the cachet that Hal Holbrook and John Houseman brought to Carpenter’s original, this is a pretty good lineup. Welling gets top billing and he’s an attractive, engaging screen presence, but as written here his character lacks a strong heroic dimension, and he has to spend most of the last act running around saying “We’ve got to go!” entirely too many times. Grace makes Elizabeth a sympathetic damsel-in-distress, but also gives her some grit, and Blair is a solid, sexy replacement for Adrianne Barbeau. Rade Sherbedgia strikes an authoritative figure as the leader of the ghostly band, Heppell is a more appealing tyke than most kid actors, and Davis has fun with Spooner, even though the character moves awfully abruptly from comic-relief sidekick to well-spoken support player. Welsh and Botsford, unfortunately, don’t get much beyond stock, and Hough overdoes the tormented priest. For a picture of this kind, “The Fog” looks surprisingly good, with DP Nathan Hope (of “CSI”) serving up the Vancouver locations in rather elegant widecreen images. And Graeme Revell’s throbbing score adds to the atmosphere.
The 1980 version of “The Fog” didn’t have much in common with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Dawn of the Dead,” but just as the recent remakes of those Hooper and Romero movies proved more than crass copies, so Wainwright’s updating of Carpenter’s movie is an agreeable surprise. It shares many of the original’s flaws, but also manages to mirror most of its strengths.