John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) is an unusual melange that pits a large ensemble cast into a web of competing framing devices and time pressures. This complex structure is mirrored and marshalled by Carpenter’s evocative score, which uses Wagnerian leitmotifs to aide the viewer through the large number of character arcs. Wagner is also referenced in the film’s most effective strategy: its ability to defer resolution to an almost unbearable, yet cathartic, length.
Carpenter’s scores usually take centre stage at the beginning of his films. They are calling cards that announce the arrival of a certain cinematic experience for his viewers. It is surprising then that the famous theme to The Fog does not play until 26 minutes into the film—almost a third of the short running time. The audience must first endure several scenes/sequences, all of which, the campfire story cold opening/framing device aside, take place over one hour of narrative time: the witching hour during which Stevie Wayne’s (Andrienne Barbeau) radio programme airs. These sections include montages of poltergeist-ery activity around the town, mini character introductions and the gradual encroachment of the haunted fog—first through the weather forecast and then through misty assaults. These intersect with Stevie’s announcements of the time on her show. The build-up of expectation is driven by the time pressure of the witching hour and the announcement of a time pressure yet to come (the remainder of the film takes place over the course of the town’s birthday celebration).
The absence of the main theme until after the opening night, according to viewer expectations, delays the start of the film (Carpenter films do not ‘arrive’ until the overture starts). The theme plays for only 50 seconds before fading out—its quasi ‘Shepard tone’ scales provoking another sense of time/tension building. Resolution is proffered and deferred. We will not hear the theme again until the end credits where it is played in its entirety. Like any effective ghost story, the good stuff is only glimpsed briefly before the ultimate reveal.