Welcome to the first in what will be a series of reviews focusing on women and women-identified actors and characters in classic horror films. To kick things off we have a movie starring, not one, not two, but three legendary scream queens: The Fog (1980, Prime Video).
Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter are well-known for pairing up in the genre-changing 1978 film Halloween, but The Fog has an impressive pedigree. In addition to Curtis, the movie stars Carpenter’s longtime muse and wife Adrienne Barbeau, and Curtis’s mother, Psycho legend Janet Leigh.
Take a second and let that all that star power wash over you like a thick fog rolling into town.
The Fog follows more of a 1950s creature feature plot than the late-70s slasher. By today’s standards, it would probably receive a PG rating. There’s little, if any, blood and zero gore. The monsters are barely seen other than some decaying hands and red, glowing eyes. If you’re looking for a way into classic horror, this is worth checking out. Network TV has scarier stuff than this.
Those of you who have seen Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean will recognize the plot: some undead angry pirates go in search of a lost piece of gold. In the case of The Fog, the pirates are brought ashore by, well, fog.
On the eve of Antonio Bay’s 100th anniversary, strange things start to happen: bricks fly off walls, phones ring, gas pumps spill, glass shatters, cars honk. No one seems particularly concerned about any of this. In fact, despite her husband gone missing, party chairperson Kathy Williams (Leigh) is determined to continue the celebrations as usual. When you’ve already been stabbed in the shower, a missing husband is maybe NBD.
Speaking of things that are NBD, town resident Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) picks up hitchhiker Elizabeth Solley (Curtis) and she’s 100% a-ok with getting into a car with a stranger, going home with him, and sleeping with him before she even knows his name. Women’s liberation!
Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) finds the diary of the priest who helped found the town, and local radio station owner and DJ Stevie Wayne (Barbeau) is getting sexually harassed over the phone by Antonio Bay’s weather guy. The scene is set for action.
The fog rolls in and seems to have a mind of its own, bringing undead angry pirates to the town’s residents. Despite being both undead and angry, the pirates are polite enough to knock before entering anyone’s homes. While Stevie uses her perch from Antonio Bay’s highest point to broadcast directions to the evacuating town, Nick, Elizabeth, Father Malone, Kathy, and a few others come together to…fight the fog.
There’s some MacGuffin about the people who found the town is awful, but that’s less important than glowing fog. We’ll get to that in a bit.
In addition to a distinct lack of blood and gore, what sets The Fog apart from so many other traditional horror films is how the women are treated. The “bad girls” who have sex aren’t sentenced to die long, painful deaths. There are no sacrificial virgins. The women in The Fog fare much better than the men do.
According to the established rules of horror films, Elizabeth should have been among the first to die. She’s a sexually active woman, and yet she’s treated with a respect that even modern horror films lack. Stevie is a single mom and Kathy is married; not virgins, either. Neither are they, not trussed-up modern stand-ins for female virginity, such as Riley in Black Christmas (forced against her will), Grace in Ready or Not (still technically a bride on her wedding night), or Erin in You’re Next (an outsider to the family). Elizabeth, Stevie, and Kathy are fully grown women who aren’t here to fulfill the (presumably male and heterosexual) audience’s desire for sexual purity, aka “good,” against evil.*
The heroines in this film stay on the ball. For all their scream queen statuses, there are precious few victims. While you’ll get some classic Carpenter jump scares, fake-outs, and through-the-door grabs, the citizens of Antonio Bay aren’t going down without a fight.
The film also addresses past wrongs in a way that feels very on-point in our era of #BlackLivesMatter. One hundred years ago, the town was founded on betrayal and murder, and now the living must pay. As soon as they figure out why the fog and Captain Barbosa are attacking them, they work to make things right. As Scream Queen Mother Leigh says:
“The celebration tonight is a travesty. We’re honoring murderers.”
You don’t see any of the characters in The Fog attempting to escape responsibility by telling the undead angry pirates that all of this happened a long time ago, that they should just get over it, or that they the living are suffering, too. Something terrible happened back then, there’s only one way to make it right, so that’s what our heroes set out to do. For a 40-year old movie, that still seems like pretty good advice.
*For more on this, see “Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film,” chapter 1, by Erin Harrington.
Movie Review originally posted by Meredith Morgenstern on 7/30/20 on Medium