The Fog: John Carpenter’s ‘Liebestod’

Curator's Note

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.


Interesting discussion of the score --and it makes me realize that the delayed central score compounds--as you say--what I find to be one of the greatest things about The Fog (my second favorite Carpenter film): the way it builds dread. Thanks!

Thank you Dawn. It's a film I immeadiately loved when I first saw it -- especially because of the music. Yet, I remember rewatching it and waiting and waiting for the theme to kick in. I realised I had a false memory that the film started with the music and a glorious foggy widescreen shot of Antonio Bay. Instead, the film withholds such "pleasures" beyond what seems reasonable. I suspect that many of Carpenter's films are so enduring because they don't ever do what you expect them to do (even upon second or third viewing). But, these swerves are quite subtle, and we rarely pick up on them -- at least not consciously. 

It is a pretty interesting paper about The Fog, I didn't realize that this theme began so late in the movie. It was very subtle to notice that. Now that you're saying that, George, I realize that this effect of delaying the action is a thing we can find in a lot of Carpenter horrific movies. For instance, in The Thing -even if the score of Morricone begins at the very beginning of the movie, during the credits, which is different from The Fog as you wrote-, the real story only begins when we discover that the dog is The Thing, before that there a long exposition scene which explains the relations between the different members of MacReady's crew. In Halloween, it is a similar case but not exactly the same. The film begins in media res (yes, you correctly read) with Michael killing his sister, so, we are not in the 'real story' for the moment. But, even if the story begins when Michael escapes from the hospital and start stalking Laurie Strode and her friends, Michael doesn't kill until 45 minutes or so. Carpenter delayed the action again to build tension, in the three cases. It is a sort of narrative figure in a way, which is Carpenter's mark but also specific to the horror genre. Although, it is a difficult effect to master, Carpenter does it extremely well whereas some other movies that came after it are pretty predictable. I'm thinking particularly of slasher movies, like the sequels of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street.
But, yes, the difference between The Thing, Halloween and The Fog is that the beginning of the score in the latter, begins at the same time the story begins which is not the case of Halloween and The Thing where the score begins before the 'real' story. Althoug, in the three cases, we have a great example of Carpenter's mastery in tension building.
Thank you again for your article George, I hope you will enjoy the others.

Thank you very much Florian

There's a quote from Carpenter I once read (but now can't find and am starting to think I imagined...) where he says that the secret to making films on a small budget is "to shoot as much as you can, for as long as you can".  

I find it quite an obscure statement; the precise meaning of which I've never been entirely sure about. I do think there's a (conscious or not) frequent exploration of the innate properties of duration in his films and music. How long can you stretch tension out of a scene? How long can you delay and defer narrative over the course of a film? What can you achieve with the layering of quite minimal melodic lines in music? 

There's a few key scenes in his films that strongly gesture towards this. The excessively long fight between Hot Rod and Keith David in They Live, the climax of The Thing which sees Kurt Russell and David just... waiting..., or just the excruciating tedium on board Dark Star. I feel that he's quite interested in "dead time". In Dark Star, the captain is dead but remains in cryosleep. His death is thus announced but never actually realised. 

Thank you for this post! 

I think Carpenter has been too modest in discussing his talents as a composer and musician. Clearly his music professor father had a huge influence particularly in music theory. 

I especially appreciated your attention to the delay tactic he often employs and how this works within the larger narrative structure of a given story. 

It made me revisit the opening sequence to “Prince of Darkness”- not quite as iconic of a score, but has a patience and delay similar to what you describe here from The Fog. 

Prince of Darkness has an interesting score in that it isn't as immediate as some of his more iconic themes. I wonder if this is the mark of Carpenter as a more mature/confident filmmaker and composer, willing to let the flame burn slowly? I'm going to see PoD next week as it's getting a restoration and re-release. I shall report on my findings. 

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