**½/**** Image B Sound B Extras A
starring Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone
screenplay by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless
directed by Joe Dante
John Carpenter's The Fog
***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A
starring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Houseman, Janet Leigh
screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
directed by John Carpenter
by Walter Chaw The theory is that gangs of artists working at around the same time in the same place, in complementary milieux, can lead to something like artistic Darwinism, a certain macho brinkmanship that pushes genres towards a kind of organic evolution. Within a very few years, artists like John Carpenter, John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, Sam Raimi, Brian DePalma, Bob Clark, Dan O'Bannon, Sean S. Cunningham, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Stan Winston, Larry Cohen, and on and on and so on, were working in and reinvigorating the horror genre--many under the tutelage of Roger Corman, still others the initial products of formal film school training, almost all the consequence of a particular movie geekism that would lead inevitably to the first rumblings of jokiness and self-referentiality-as-homage that reached its simultaneous pinnacle and nadir with Craven's Scream. In the late 1970s into the early 1980s, however, that cleverness wasn't so much the hateful, patronizing post-modernism of the last decade's horror films as what feels like a genuine affection for the genre--an appreciation of the legacy of the Universal, Corman, and Hammer horror factory traditions.
On different ends of that same contemporary spectrum, then, are Carpenter and Dante, both breaking through with a film in 1978 (Halloween and Piranha, respectively), with Carpenter treating the genre with a deadly, almost mordant reverence and Dante approaching the material under the heavy influence of Warner Brothers and Tex Avery cartoons that consistently finds its way into his work. (Though it should be said that some of the gags that Dante engages in here, Carpenter will ape later in films such as They Live and Vampires.) What the filmmakers had in common were miniscule budgets and a dedication to innovative camera and scoring techniques, while all around them, special effects technology made gargantuan leaps and bounds. So, separated by about eleven months, Carpenter released his ambitious nautical ghost story The Fog (1980) and Dante weighed in with his highly sexualized werewolf flick The Howling (1981); meanwhile, over at Universal, Landis was preparing his own jokey, arguably more successful lycanthropy pic An American Werewolf in London--and each film reflected its creator's relative takes on the genre: the one brooding and haunted, the other campy and puerile.
For Dante, The Howling, a great deal like Piranha before it, begins as a Jaws rip-off--something at least equally attributable to screenwriter-for-hire John Sayles, who, while piecing together the script for this film, was also pounding out the script for Lewis Teague's own tongue-in-cheek Jaws ripper Alligator--in structure, featuring a seriocomic morgue sequence, the gradual reveal of the mechanical monster, and the provincialism of small-town politicos, all with the distinct whiff of Seventies paranoia that found targets in traditional authority figures and institutions. In The Howling, Sayles and Dante narrow the crosshairs on the self-help culture, centering the action on a mountain retreat that appears to be a support group for werewolves. The picture can be read for profit, in fact, as a statement of consumption: consumer, pop cultural, mass media-wise, and sexual--with a key moment one where Christopher Stone as heroine newscaster Karen's (Dee Wallace Stone) freshly-wolfed vegetarian husband chows down on a grilled spare-rib, and the conclusion a riff on Network's "mad as hell" climax. The sexual aspect of the film, with an amazingly effective prologue in a porno booth showing a snuff film (echoes of Craven's Last House on the Left) and an equal parts hot and ludicrous fireside boink, elaborates on the creatures of the id aspect of the werewolf mythos by discarding the cyclical, involuntary metamorphosis and replacing it with a spontaneous--repressible--shift.
The ability to shoot the werewolves in full sunlight is important in that thematically it transports the sexual violence implications from unconscious night to self-knowing day while, literally, it provides the possibility for a young (21-year-old) Rob Bottin to showcase his character designs and special effects to startling effect. (Bottin, of course, would reach a special effects pinnacle--arguably still unsurpassed and, in today's CGI-mad environment, possibly unsurpassable--with Carpenter in 1982's The Thing.) Yet at its heart, The Howling is very much the B-movie: its subtext inconsistent, its satire almost more the product of two decades' hindsight, its humour now as much a product of camp as wit, and its monsters curiously wimpy (these hulks don't so much smash as paw meekly). The scares seem less earned than shock-dependent, the major exception--and the best sequence in the film--being an extended stalking of poor, doomed do-gooder Belinda Balaski, which ends with the legendary on-screen transformation of Robert Picardo, complete with the juxtaposition of a Warners' big bad wolf cartoon.
Tighter and scarier, relying more on implication and atmosphere, Carpenter's The Fog was initially so reticent about showing its bogeys that, with three months to release, Carpenter decided to shoot new scenes, re-score, and re-edit the piece to, ironically, put the picture more in line with the sort of horror film that people had begun to expect to see since his own Halloween. (Irony again, Carpenter's Halloween itself is a model of restraint.) To that end, The Fog received new scenes of bloodletting, a new jump-scare in the bowels of an abandoned boat (shades, again, of Jaws), and a conclusion atop a lighthouse that functions as a genuinely creepy expansion of the picture's premise. Opening with a spooky John Houseman telling a group of kids a story of the good people of their small coastal town luring pirates to their death and looting their ill-gotten spoils, The Fog is an anniversary horror film, taking place on the birthday of the atrocity as a thick, luminescent fog rolls in, carrying a horde of zombie pirates with it.
Like The Howling, The Fog can be read for some profit as a statement on greed and consumption--less sexual (though there is Jamie Lee Curtis in the role of a free-love hitchhiker) than a literal conversation about the a town founded on filthy lucre, murder, and corruption. (Seventies issues, certainly, and concerns still for the activist Carpenter.) The Fog feels more the straight-forward genre exercise, far less concerned than Dante in glancing off its forebears and winking at a movie-savvy audience. Hal Holbrook is the problem-solver and moral compass of the piece as priest Father Malone while Adrienne Barbeau offers what is possibly her finest hour as Stevie Wayne, DJ and single mother ("Hi everybody, this is Stevie Wayne, your night light"). The effectiveness of the film lies in the foundations of those two characters, rooted as they both are in 1950s archetypes of fathers knowing best and mothers holding down the fort, each representative of parental love and the ultimate death of the belief of a parent's ability to offer absolute protection--the exploration of which is at once regressive and terrifying at its most primal level. (Real-life mother-daughter Curtis and Janet Leigh both figure in the picture.) Carpenter handles the emergence of ghouls from not just the literal deeps, but also the depths of the knowledge of the sins of the fathers (and mothers), with a surplus of restraint (re-shoots and all) and a rare, abiding respect for narrative. Not Carpenter's best film, The Fog may on the other hand be his most underestimated.
THE DVD - THE HOWLING
Packaged individually or as two-thirds of a three-disc "Horror Special Edition DVD Collection" (DePalma's Carrie rounds out the de facto trilogy), The Howling and The Fog are joint recipients of top-notch anamorphic video transfers that preserve the widescreen ratios (particularly vital in The Fog's case), while demonstrating in action that MGM is serious about its archives. The Howling, with its budget of around 1.1 million dollars on a 28-day shooting schedule, benefits least of the two films from its remastering, the print-master overly grainy in several spots, with colour a little dull and flesh-tones weak. The conclusion to the abovementioned extended-stalking scene, however, receives its best-ever look on home video, the contrast brightened even from a 1995 SE LaserDisc release that marked, at the time, the small-screen debut of the scene with its intended luminosity. While listed on the keepcase as having an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the image is closer to the 1.66:1 ratio for which the film was originally composed. A new 5.1 Dolby Digital remix of The Howling's original mono track offers a nice richness, solving some of the tinniness of the dialogue and volume problems in the past versions. Pino Donaggio's lush score receives the most benefit, while a few lonesome howls startle from the rear.
A feature-length yakker is lifted entire from the LaserDisc, featuring Dante, Dee Wallace Stone, the late Christopher Stone (who died a few months after recording the track), and a pre-"Star Trek: Voyager" Robert Picardo. Funny and companionable, there are a few quiet moments now and again, with the bulk of the track given over to Dante's peculiar effusiveness. An anecdote about Corman's legendary spendthriftness and his cameo in The Howling draws the same sort of wry chuckles as the rest of the film's in-references. Not essential listening, but not excruciating either. Packed on the first side of this double-sided platter is a full-screen version (video quality comparable, really, though picture information is of course sacrificed), and an Easter egg you can access through the "happy face" icon on the Special Features menu. (It's a three-and-a-half minute interview with Corman/Dante fave Dick Miller.) The second side of the disc is given over to a new documentary: "Unleashing the Beast: Making The Howling", that runs about an hour and is split into five short documentaries as follows.
"A Brief History of Werewolves" features an interview with Sayles and Dante about the origins of the film's sexual mythology and tweakings of the werewolf myth structure. The interviews excerpted herein with Sayles, Dante, Dee Wallace Stone, producer Mike Finnell, Miller, Picardo, et al are cut up and scattered throughout the rest of the five pieces. The connection with The Fog through production company Avco/Embassy is mentioned in passing. "A Company of Werewolves", "How to Make a Werewolf Picture", "I Was a Latex Werewolf", and "Requiem for a Werewolf" cover the production of the film from casting to on-the-set anecdotes that are, sadly, mostly to be found already in the eight-year-old commentary track. Time has not been a salve to memory, it seems--but an extended look at some of the discarded stop-motion done by Dave Allen is by itself worth the price of admission. A 1981 doc, "Making a Monster Movie: The Howling", features droll interviews with Bottin, Dante, and Patrick Macnee conducted at the time of the film's theatrical release. A deleted scenes and outtakes reel offers minor rewards; a pair of un-remastered theatrical trailers, two galleries of photos (Theatrical Publicity Campaign, Production), trailers for the Carrie, Jeepers Creepers, and The Fog Special Editions, and a photo gallery of other MGM horror DVD covers rounds out the nifty presentation.
THE DVD - THE FOG
Also packed with special features, MGM's The Fog: SE offers as its tastiest morsel a widescreen, 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer that gives cinematographer Dean Cundey's amazing tableaux (amazing!) a home theatre treatment they deserve. A scene of Stevie walking down a long staircase to the peninsula where her lighthouse/transmitter sits is vertiginous and gorgeous--the film should not--cannot--be viewed in any other aspect ratio. (The fullscreen pan-and-scan rendition on the back of the platter is an abomination. More so than usual, even.) While the colours disappoint (pale blues are whites), making the film look every bit its twenty-three years and every bit the theatrically-used source, and while a few moments of grain now and again prove mildly distracting, the recovery of something like forty percent of screen information forgives a lot for me. All the same, the decision to cram the widescreen on the same side of a DVD-14 as the special features is a questionable one--the video quality could only have been served by additional file space. The remastered Dolby 5.1 audio mix, however, is full and faithful--watch those stings in the upper registers.
A feature-length yakker with Carpenter and former filmmaking partner Debra Hill is lively and informative and again lifted from a 1995 LaserDisc (though not as lively and informative as Carpenter's commentaries with Kurt Russell for The Thing, Escape from New York (recorded for Laser, coming soon to DVD), and Big Trouble in Little China), and a new, DVD-specific documentary ("Tales from the Mist: Inside The Fog") submits thirty minutes' worth of observations (only a few rehashed) about the literary sources of the film (Poe, Lovecraft, E.C. Comics) and the late-edit woes. A contemporary documentary ("Fear on Film: Inside The Fog"), like The Howling's "Making a Monster Movie", is almost more interesting for its dated perspective. (Disconcerting is a Jamie Lee Curtis excerpt that has been transplanted in full for the "new" documentary--where's Jamie Lee on here, anyway?) Outtakes, a storyboard comparison, and, again, two photo galleries round out the handsome disc, not counting an Easter egg on the special features menu (go to the top to highlight a pair of eyes in the fog) that links to an additional outtake reel of fog effects and a neat zombie hand rising out of the water. Originally published: August 25, 2003.