“Eleven fifty-five. Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before twelve. Just to keep us warm.” That’s how John Carpenter chose to start his masterful follow up to Halloween and prove that he is one of the all time horror greats. He showed us he could take a shoestring budget, a simple ghost story, a menacing tone and a crap ton of dry ice and fuel nightmares for decades.
What’s going on everyone? Slick Dungeon here and I just re-watched this classic from 1980 and wanted to give my thoughts on it and a little bit about horror in general. It has been a long time since I saw this movie so although, I certainly remember thinking it was a decent film, I had forgotten how good it actually is. Needless to say, I will be giving some mild spoilers here so be forewarned.
The beginning of the film is a story around a campfire. At this point in cinema history, that’s probably over done and most of the time would not work. But here, in this film, the whole movie is what amounts to a campfire story so it makes a lot of sense. Also, by framing it this way at the beginning, Carpenter is able to set up the atmosphere, give us most of the information that we need to understand the story, and introduce us to the town the story is set in. He takes the time do one very important thing that I think a lot of modern horror films lack. He sets the tone. If you think about one of the best horror films to come out in recent decades, Get Out, does the exact same thing. I know that gore splatter and body horror films are popular but they never scare me as much as a film willing to be patient enough to make the scares matter.
We’re told the legend of the founding of Antonio Bay, involving a tragic shipwreck and it’s obvious from the start that even if every word of this legend is not going to turn out to be true, it will still be deadly. Even more so because the teller of the tale is able to time the tale so that it is finished at the very second that it is 100 years to the date that the shipwreck happened. We know there are ghosts coming for someone from the depths of the bay, through the fog.
Around the same time, a priest in town discovers an old journal belonging to his grandfather, full of murder and secrets buried for a century.
It turns out that the campfire story was only partly true. The shipwreck was deliberate and six men met their deaths because of it. Now, one hundred years after, these six men are coming back through the fog to take revenge on six victims.
Simultaneously, a ship out to sea is enveloped with fog, and a radio station operator starts seeing the impossible. The fog moves against the wind.
The rest of the movie is basically what amounts to guessing who will get killed and who will survive. And to be honest, the effects don’t all hold up that well. But it still works for a few reasons. First, Carpenter waits long enough to truly show us the monsters that they don’t have to look that good. Second, the performances by everyone in this are outstanding. To top that off, the film stars high quality actors including the ever entertaining Hal Holbrook, scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis and of course, the most famous Hitchcock blond of them all, Janet Leigh. Finally, Carpenter makes the stakes high immediately by murdering everyone on the ship at sea.
It’s a fascinating psychological portrait and while there are things that jump out at you and startle you, it never has to rely on that to be frightening. I wish more films could learn these lessons. Jump cuts are fun and entertaining but they simply don’t make for the greatest tone, and personally, I usually notice the edit and think, “yeah okay that was a jump cut, let’s move on.”
I can see how a lot of horror fans may have missed this film as it was never as popular as Halloween and it’s sequels and while it doesn’t quite grip you as well as The Thing, it is still masterful cinema. If you love a good ghost tale and have about ninety minutes, you should definitely check this movie out. And if, like me you haven’t seen it in years, it’s a great and fun look back on when horror took it’s time to creep up behind you before striking out.
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