Minutiae: The Silence in The Fog

As a new generation of filmmakers – particularly horror filmmakers – emerges in the states, John Carpenter’s influence continues to grow more and more significant. Not only are modern directors eager to try to reproduce the suspense and terse unease of Carpenter’s signature pictures, but they are also heavily influenced by the threadbare synth scores Carpenter wrote for his films.

Often Carpenter did this out of budgetary necessity. Simply, it was cheaper than hiring someone else to do it. But those themes have become classics. Signature pieces in the pop culture lexicon. Everything from Assault On Precinct 13 through Halloween right up to They Live (and arguably beyond). If Dean Cundey’s gorgeous cinematography doesn’t alert you that you’re watching an 80’s John Carpenter movie, then Carpenter’s own theme music most certainly will.

You can hear his influence all through some of this decade’s most distinct pictures. You’re NextCold In JulyIt Follows. Numerous filmmakers and modern day composers owe Carpenter a debt. And yet, for me, the most bewitching opening title sequence of Carpenter’s career plays out to eerie silence.

It’s not that The Fog doesn’t have an exquisite score. Indeed, it has one of Carpenter’s very best. And it’s main theme plays over the atmospheric title, as we look out over Antonio Bay right after John Houseman’s campfire ghost story gets us in the mood. But following this, the opening credits present something very different from the revered horror director; the exception to the rule. Silence.

Or, not quite silence…

It’s just turned midnight in the Pacific coastal town. Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) pays a hired hand (Carpenter in a regrettable cameo) at the town church. A rock in the wall of his study comes loose, knocking over a radio which starts blaring the jazz music broadcast from the town’s lighthouse radio station. The music itself acts as a sustained punctuation mark to the inexplicable event. Bit by bit, the sleepy little community is stirred from its peace on the eve of its centennial celebrations.

A dog barks in the deserted streets. Boats lay quiet in their docks. The coastguard radio chatters innocuously.

Then, a bank of payphones outside of a general store all start ringing simultaneously, discordantly, over one another like reporters babbling to get a story. Their coin slots eject change which tinkles like slot machines paying out. Inside the store, a night janitor sweeps up and steals some orange juice; his act watched by the inanimate reflective mirrors on the ceiling which creak and twitch as though whispering to one another. This in spite of no discernible source of breeze. Then, the crashing of glass. The janitor looks caught as an earthquake happens around him. It’s over almost as soon as its begun, leaving a hanging sign squeaking from the vibrations. Then a second mini-quake.

Carpenter shows us a close-up of a wall clock, so we know its coming up on five past midnight. Houseman’s pre-credit campfire tale already warned us of the power of this witching hour. Carpenter’s eerie music-free overture continues…

The town gas station silently comes to life, the flicking on of its lights reminds us of the Nostromo waking itself up at the beginning of Alien; another horror film that begins in untrustworthy calmness. In one of the most senselessly effective jump scares in cinema, a gas nozzle throws itself out of its holster, spilling fuel on the forecourt. The pump chimes out the charge. In the background, a car starts to rise on the garage lift by itself. On the wall, a bell chimes. Prefiguring the weird horror of Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive, inanimate objects appear to be conversing with one another.

Carpenter takes a pause, and its worth considering how all these squeaks, tinkles and chimes form a score of their own, echoing in the darkness. Film editors Tommy Lee Wallace (who would go on to direct Halloween III: Season of the Witch) and Charles Bornstein are credited in soft white letters. Their names disappear in time with a chorus of car horns exploding into life; the most flamboyant gesture in this concerto of unrest.

The horns disturb Nancy Loomis’ character. Her presence as witness is almost reassuring in what’s seemed for the last few minutes like a ghost town. But there’s no reassurance to be had. Her TV turns itself on, angry with bad tracking, and then – in a jump that almost rivals the gas pump – an armchair jerks forward toward the camera. It’s the final punctuation mark in an astonishing sequence before Adrienne Barbeau’s radio DJ Stevie Wayne soothes us with her calming voice on KAB radio.

As mentioned, Carpenter has cast and production credits play silently through this little montage of moments. The effect is profound. For one, the credits themselves set this run of shots out as title ‘sequence’, drawing our attention to their gathering as part of a palette-cleanser and tone-setter. We are encouraged to take them as one. This, then, is his alternative take on a trope of cinema. Removing his own music brings forth the intention in terms of tone. We’re left watching and waiting. It’s immensely suspenseful. That’s also why the jumps work so well.

And quietness is something very important to The Fog. This isn’t a loud movie, competing with the noise of other ‘modern’ horror pictures in the landscape of 1980. It’s a throwback. Carpenter, along with producer and co-writer Debra Hill, planned it to feel this way. In terms of silently declaring your mission statement to an audience, few films open as strongly.

It helps that Carpenter has on hand Dean Cundey, his long-time cinematographer, whose expertise enhances his films in no small way. The sequence is a showcase for the DP’s amazing talents with lightning and framing. During this period in American filmmaking, Cundey had few rivals. Spielberg was clearly taking notes; he hired Cundey for Jurassic Park some years later, and the opening of The Fog feels echoed in that movie’s nail-biting kitchen scenes.

The cool white neons that punctuate the blue night during the opening of The Fog also compliment the faint sense of bleed on the rounded white letters of the credits discreetly blinking by (love that font BTW) and also prefigure the aesthetic of the fog rolling over the town by the time we get to the film’s third act. So the sequence and its credits set tone, pace, sensibility and provide a sense of overarching unity. Quite the triumph.

It was also a last minute addition. The Fog didn’t test well with the studio and one of the criticisms was that the film felt short and also, simultaneously, slow to get going. A few scenes were added in the early part of the film to beef it up, including this riveting little montage. It sounds as though post-production for The Fog was rather hellish, but this is clearly one of those rare cases in which the necessity of fooling around, retooling, re-shooting and reassembling genuinely paid off. From the struggle to make The Fog work came one of the most effective sequences in all of Carpenter’s career. The Fog is one of my favourite movies, and its opening is no small part of that.

 

 

 

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