A classic ghost story setup, some creepy cinematography, a few wonderful moments and a very uneven delivery make this story from John Carpenter an enjoyable if incomplete horror movie.
The movie opens with an old man telling a group of kids a ghost story around the campfire. This is a perfect setup. This whole movie feels like a campfire story. An impenetrable fog rolls in on this small coastal town. The fog brings with it a ghost ship full of vengeful spirits looking to drag some souls back with them. The residents of the town must survive until the dreadful curse is executed.
The town is populated by a host of characters all played by top notch actors. Hal Holbrook plays a boozy priest. Janet Leigh plays a local official tackling everything at once. Jaime Lee Curtis plays a runaway hitchhiking her way to Vancouver to become an artist. Adriene Barbeau plays the owner of a local radio station trying to warn people of the impending doom. The actors give great performances. They deliver crackling realistic dialogue with a grounded lived in quality. The problem is that beyond each characters set up, there isn’t much for them to do. Each character doesn’t have their own story, they are just pieces of a tableau that come sunder attack by the fog. Because of this, no one character is really able to land with any impact. No story really sticks out when they’re given so little time.
But they aren’t really the stars of the movie. The star here is the fog itself, and John Carpenter creates a vividly memorable fog. The fog rolls in slowly and seems to glow from within. Somehow he has made a fog that literally illuminates every scene with an unearthly light. It’s a great effect. The ghosts that the fog brings are also wonderfully creepy. They are mostly seen in glimpses and silhouettes. These ghosts attack a ship, and the sequence is shot in a wonderfully horrifying fashion. There’s another great sequence when they are menacing the character Nick played by Tom Atkins. It’s fantastically suspenseful filmmaking in which the audience knows more than the characters, and we’re just dreading what might come next. Great stuff.
However, there’s too little of it. The ghosts want revenge on the town, and they plan on killing six people. They take out three right away, then another two, then the last one and it’s over way too quickly. The main heroes are never really in danger. It’s all side characters and extras who get taken by the ghosts. Why not have them go after the whole town or go after our protagonists specifically? It’s just a missed opportunity and a strange limit. What rule is binding these supernatural beings? Why can’t they take a few more for good measure? I’m not advocating more violence, I’m just pointing out how silly the rule is. If the rule was better utilized to amp up the tension it might have worked better. As it is, it feels arbitrary and a bit silly.
And that’s the problem with the movie as a whole. It’s filled with great ideas that just don’t hit their mark. The six idea could be great, but doesn’t work that way. The main cast is wonderful, but isn’t given enough to make them work. It’s a great setup with a sloppy execution. Did I enjoy it? Yes absolutely. There’s a lot to love here, but do I recommend it for your Halloween viewing? Only marginally.
It’s half a cup of tea. B