Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Produced by: Debra Hill
Starring: Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, and John Houseman

Bad remakes do serve a purpose. Don’t believe me? How many people purchased or rented the original House of Wax or Texas Chainsaw Massacre after they sat through the horrid retreads of the last few years? How many people discovered the Japanese versions of Ringu, Ju-on, or Dark Water because Hollywood decided to Americanize them? Yes, horrible updates make us seek out the source material—make us want to recapture the feeling that these retellings let slip through their fingers. And if ever a forgotten horror film deserved to be re-discovered, it is John Carpenter’s The Fog.

The film opens around a campfire on the beach. The late, great John Houseman tells a ghost story. It seems that exactly one hundred years ago, in the California coastal town of Antonio Bay, a group of men lit their own bonfire. A ship of lepers saw the light through a thick fog and mistook it for the lighthouse beacon. Their ship, the Elizabeth Dane, was drawn onto the rocks and sank. No one survived. The makers of the 2005 version felt they had to show us how the ship came to its horrible end. Why? Houseman’s distinctive voice gives us all the information we need to know. He has the children on film, and the audience at home, hanging on every word.

Director Carpenter and his cinematographer, Dean Cundey, excel at setting the mood early on—something the remake never does. During the opening credits, as clocks all around town strike midnight, the one-hundredth anniversary of the atrocity, strange things begin to happen. Windows shatter, radios suddenly come on, and objects move by themselves. Before the film even begins, we know something creepy is going on here.

Carpenter has the eye of a twisted painter and his shots of the glowing fogbank coming ashore to envelope the town are as beautiful as they are ominous. The visuals are even more incredible because no computers were involved. Compare these wonderfully composed frames of billowing mist to the horrid, pixilated, CG fog from the update. Wait…there is no comparison. The original fills us with chills. The new version makes us want to roll our eyes and laugh.

Special effects know-how and film budgets have certainly increased over the last 25 years, but not talent. Nowhere is this more evident than in the treatment of The Fog‘s ghosts. In John Carpenter’s The Fog, they are actors dressed like rotting mummies—including effects man Rob Bottin who would later create the unforgettable creatures in John Carpenter’s The Thing. They are kept in the shadows of the swirling mist and appear only as backlit silhouettes. When they come up to a house, they knock on the door with large meat hooks. In the remake, they are computer-generated rip-offs of the skeleton pirates from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. When these animated spirits approach a house, they knock with the handle of a cane. By his use of shadow, and the image of the meat hook, Carpenter makes his specters truly frightening. By showing rather than suggesting, the new version turns them into something comical.

The cast from the original film is also far superior to the retread. Tom Atkins’ “Nick” and Jamie Lee Curtis’ “Elizabeth” are strangers when they meet. Perhaps this detail was altered due to changing attitudes toward casual sex, but having them as old flames, as the new version does, takes something away from the story. Atkins has lived in the town all his life. He gives his character the air of experience at sea and he shows great intensity as he questions what is going on around him. Jamie Lee is new to town and we, as the audience, see things through her eyes. And then there is the great Adrienne Barbeau as disc jockey “Stevie Wayne”. She appears old enough to realistically have a ten-year-old child (unlike the remake’s Selma Blair who would have to have been a ten-year-old herself when she gave birth). Barbeau’s sultry radio voice is perfect for the slow jazz her lighthouse station plays. Later, as the fog isolates her, the fear she displays for her son, and her pleas for everyone to find safety, greatly add to the tension of the film’s final reel. The new version has the character leaving her lighthouse and driving out into the fog in search of her son. Strange as it may sound, this actually lessens Wayne’s role in the climax.

John Carpenter’s The Fog is a perfect little scare engine that was not in need of an overhaul. But as bad as the 2005 retelling is, I hope it will at least lead people to watch the original. Those who have seen it before can delight once more in its chilling atmosphere—an atmosphere the new movie sorely lacks. And those who have endured the remake, but have never had the pleasure of seeing the original, can now enjoy actually being scared.

4 out of 5 stars