"to all the ships at sea…"

i have a quest.

it’s a very minor quest and not one which i ever imagine myself completing, but it’s rather fun to pursue now and then when i have nothing better to do with my time — or my netflix queue.

to answer the obvious: the quest is to fill in the gaps in my horror/genre/fsf movie education which are large and numerous.

now, there are some gaps i’m never going to fill. i’m not into slasher movies, so i can’t see myself ever sitting down to watch (with any pleasure, anyway, or without a lot of alcohol) the hills have eyes (any version), texas chainsaw massacre (ditto), poltergeist (any one), the exorcist (ditto), saw (ditto), or any of the jason, freddy, or michael myers movies. i know they’re classics and i know they’re great films, some of them, anyway, but i don’t like blood for the sake of blood and i don’t deal well with that type of mangled flesh. zombies, now — we can talk about zombies all freakin’ day long if you like, but knives through eyes? not my style. and this is all beyond the fact that most of these movies have endless sequels, remakes, or, my new favorite euphemism for “remake”: reboots. i only have so much time on my hands!

and this is all a long lead-up to talking about john carpenter’s 1980 the fog which i watched over the weekend. (mild spoilers ahead, by the way, both for the fog and the thing.) i’ve watched carpenter’s starman (which kind of doesn’t fit with the theme of this post but if you haven’t seen it, go watch it now and then come back; i’ll wait) and the thing which is weirdly compelling and does fit the theme.

the beastie in the thing is a waste of time. really: it’s awful. it’s completely unbelievable; you can see the wires that make the bits of the big models work; the blood doesn’t look real; the prosthetics on the humans are really obvious; and the whole thing is just a huge amount of…well…bad stuff. i can’t imagine that it ever looked particularly realistic but perhaps it was more striking on a big screen.

but the movie works. for some reason, it’s freakin’ creepy. why? i don’t quite know. it has something to do with the lack of soundtrack; it has something to do with the fact that kurt russell seems totally off the wall for most of the time; it has something to do with the isolation of the team from the rest of the world in the middle of an antarctic waste of snow and ice; and it has quite a lot to do with the ending which is one of my favorite kinds of ending. it’s sort of a “choose your own adventure” thing. do you want to think the two men survive the arctic night and are rescued in the morning? great! go to it. do you want to think one of them is infected, mutates, kills the other, and starts on its way back to the world? there’s room for that. do you want to think one of them’s infected, but the other realises and kills him before the final transformation? sure — we can do that! and there are other options, but i’m sure you get the idea.

the fog isn’t quite that open-ended, although it does have something of the same kind of nebulous quality in the ending. the set-up is pretty basic: a group of children are listening to a story being told by the classic horror figure, the grizzled old sailor. (see dracula for one of the great uses of this character.) he tells them about a ship, broken up on the rocks near the beach where they are sitting, lured to its destruction in a sudden thick fog by a fire lit on the beach. the ship was sunk a century before the night on which he is telling the story and as the camera leaves the children on the beach, it pans through the town of antonio bay, showing us quiet streets, deserted sidewalks, and dark houses — and sudden strange things happening all over town as midnight hits and the anniversary of the ship’s destruction begins.

this opening sequence — which is really significantly more than an opener, since it takes the best part of half an hour — sets up the other events in the movie pretty well and is almost more scary than most of them. car alarms start to blare; the sign in a grocery store snaps its chain and nearly falls, scaring the hell out of a late-night clerk; gas pumps fall off their handles and begin to spout petrol across the pavement; radios turn on and off; televisions lose signal. what makes it effective, i feel, is the lack of soundtrack and the lack of histrionic reaction on the part of the people who witness what’s going on. they’re puzzled, maybe a little disturbed — but no-one freaks out and goes shrieking out into the night yelping about “vampire ghosts come back to murder us” which might be more usual in a modern movie since we need to get the action moving and the blood on the walls.

the rest of the plot set-up/story explanation is done through the device of an old diary (rather suspiciously new-looking to my mind!) discovered by the town priest when part of his wall falls in and the diary drops onto his desk. the diary eventually reveals the cause for the original ship’s destruction and the guilt of certain city fathers in the lighting of the fire on the beach a hundred years before. apparently the sailors on the century-old ship are really pissed.

the movie builds more on everyday weirdness than on huge gory confrontations. yes, the crew of a fishing smack is killed and a corpse does collapse out of a closet onto one of the people who arrives to investigate the boat. but there are also long, slow sequences which build to much more effective fright, such as the local radio host bringing a piece of driftwood discovered by her son on the beach into her broadcast studio which is also a lighthouse. as she turns her back to speak on the phone, leaving the wood on top of a stack of cassettes, the letters on the wood suddenly run with water, revealing the word “dane,” and leaking down to run over her tapes and a tape player, altering the tape to a ghostly, warped voice. oh, and did i mention that the radio host is adrienne barbeau? who is just awesome? and was in carnivale? well, i have now. 🙂

the fog itself is a great secondary character. it glows; it moves really fast; and creepy things lurk around in it.

the fog works in much the same way that the thing does: a slow, ordinary build-up to a couple of big shocker scenes at the end. the slow build is really effective, making the cheesiness of the reveals at the end (by modern standards anyway) worth it. and you also get to watch adrienne barbeau and jamie lee curtis do a pretty fantastic job of not being scream queens. there’s very little screaming on the whole and most of the characters don’t behave like idiots simply for the sake of making the story run along smooth rails.

so here’s some youtube fun for you: the original 1980s trailers for the fog and the thing (they’re both meant to be serious (i think), but they come across as being very funny!) and the opening scene from the fog.

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2 thoughts on “"to all the ships at sea…"

  1. I loved The Thing! The characters actually behaved like protaganists and tried to deal with the situation (as much as anybody can deal with a body-snatching, regenerating evil alien) instead of panicking and running around screaming. I've never been a fan either, of movies that just line up victims and then do their best to make the audience go, 'eew.' I'll have to check out The Fog.
    Dark City is a good scifi/mystery movie I think you'd like too.

  2. *wave* to quasidigm.

    people get a little screamier in 'the fog' than 'the thing,' but there's definitely more “trying to figure things out” than “running around screeching 'cause we can.” there's a particularly good sequence where adrienne barbeau demonstrates the meaning of “keep calm and carry on.”

    “dark city” is great! kind of a spoiler for “the matrix” and really — what a cast! jennifer connolly, rufus sewell, ian richardson– awesome stuff. and now i'm reminded i haven't seen it in far too long. 🙂

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