“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if there’s a knock at the door, and it’s at night, you don’t open the door,” says producer Debra Hill in the DVD commentary for The Fog (1980), a film she also co-wrote. It might sound like common sense to you the way it does to me, but the John Carpenter classic has some fun with the idea that it doesn’t necessarily for everyone.
The Fog was Carpenter’s first film after Halloween, the box-office smash that established Jamie Lee Curtis as a scream queen and redefined slasher movies forever. Its plot takes place over a single day—April 21st, 1980—from midnight to midnight. It’s the 100th birthday of Antonio Bay, a fictional coastal town in California, and its inhabitants are preparing for a candlelight procession to celebrate the milestone.
It’s common knowledge that Antonio Bay was founded on the heels of a tragedy. On a particularly foggy night in 1880, a clipper ship called the Elizabeth Dane crashed into a rocky shore and sunk, leaving no survivors. But the community’s dark secret is that the ship was lured to its fate by a campfire that had been placed there by six conspirators—the town’s founding fathers. The Elizabeth Dane carried multiple people with leprosy who intended to start a colony “only a mile distant,” under the leadership of a wealthy man named Blake. Wishing to eradicate the disease (and diseased people) on board, the conspirators orchestrated the ship’s demise and then plundered it, using Blake’s gold to build the town. Now, a century later, he and his ghost gang are back—and travelling via a thick, glowing fog—to kill six descendants of Antonio Bay’s founding fathers.
The Fog’s premise reads something like a Boy Scout ghost story come to life. (It actually begins with a town elder, Mr. Machen [John Houseman], sharing Antonio Bay’s fabled curse with a group of boys around a campfire.) Seafaring, which characterizes the town’s current existence as much as its origin story, is also a stereotypically male domain. One gets the sense moving through the town that any woman who lives here is probably the child or spouse of a mariner, or perhaps the mother of one-to-be.
But despite the film’s on-paper boyishness, Carpenter and Hill chose to structure it largely around four women—all intelligent and resourceful, all terrorized by Blake and his fellow ghosts from their separate spheres. It’s an understatement to say that The Fog is carried by radio host Stevie (Adrienne Barbeau), hitchhiker Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), civic leader Kathy (Janet Leigh), and Kathy’s assistant, Sandy (Nancy Kyes). And, importantly, when ‘there’s a knock at the door, and it’s at night,’ none of these four women open it.
The men they share screen time with, on the other hand, are almost all either bland or thickheaded—the latter trait being responsible for more than one death in the film (read: they’re prone to opening doors that they shouldn’t). It’s unclear how intentional all of this was, but the resulting story nevertheless becomes one about a group of clever women cleaning up, and paying for, the misdeeds of six men who lived and died long ago.
At the film’s centre is Adrienne Barbeau’s Stevie Wayne, the owner and host of KAB Radio (as well as the lighthouse out of which the station operates). Stevie’s a single mother—she has one son, Andy—who recently moved to Antonio Bay from Chicago. There’s a father figure in the family photos she keeps at her bedside, but the weatherman, Dan, is established as her love interest in the film (albeit one she keeps at a distance), so we might assume that she’s a widow.
Stevie’s show has made her a local celebrity of sorts. On the air, she speaks slowly and deeply, her broadcast chock-full of sexual suggestiveness. Take, for instance, the following proposal: “Keep me turned on for a while, and I’ll try my best to do the same for you.” Her listener base is comprised of the mariners and other graveyard shifters of Antonio Bay; they tune in from the early evening until one o’clock in the morning—the end of what she calls the “witching hour.” Seductive and a tad motherly, her voice is a welcome substitute for female company during their quiet and lonely evenings. When the film begins, it’s audible in the hull of the ill-fated Seagrass, the men on board bonding over their shared crushes on Stevie. “Boy, would I like to meet her,” says one. “I saw her at a grocery store one day,” replies another.
But interestingly, Stevie doesn’t actually appear on-screen until 15 minutes into Carpenter’s film; up until then, we know her solely as a voice. One might argue that this is evidence of her objectification or disembodiment, but it’s equally worth considering how her voice reaches and commands different spaces—to the point that she has perhaps the most agency of any of The Fog’s characters.
When Stevie picks up the phone to get the weather update from Dan, we realize that the voice she uses on the air is mostly affectation—something she can switch on and off. She’s used it to build a dedicated audience of night owls but can stow it away during daylight for grocery shopping and Little League games. Owing to the popularity of her station, it’s also everywhere: Alongside her jazz and classical music selections, it’s transmitted into many of Antonio Bay’s homes, ships, cars, and workplaces. By default, this means that a great deal of The Fog’s music is diegetic (with everything else being Carpenter’s official score for the film). Stevie therefore controls much of The Fog’s soundscape, even when saying nothing at all. She may seem isolated from the rest of the film’s characters, but her show actually connects her to them in personal, even intimate ways. After all, she DJs Elizabeth and Nick’s first night together, which also happens to be the men of the Seagrass’s last.
The ubiquity of Stevie’s voice and her view from the lighthouse both work together to make her the eyes of Antonio Bay. Once Blake and his ghosts begin their climactic revenge spree, she gives the other characters live updates regarding the fog’s position in the town. Over the phone, she frantically begs Dan not to open the door for the fog when it (very politely) knocks, but, high on his own arrogance, he does. After the ghosts have slaughtered him and disconnected the town’s phone lines, Stevie takes to her broadcast to have Elizabeth and Nick rescue Andy from her home. She then has the characters congregate in the town’s old church, saving most of their lives in the process. And, crucially, when the fog comes knocking at her own door, she not only doesn’t open it but attempts to block it with a ladder.
While Stevie’s voice is the only thing connecting her to the Seagrass—the ship carrying The Fog’s first victims—the other three women are linked to it directly through their relationships. Janet Leigh’s Kathy Williams hasn’t heard from her husband since he went out with the rest of the ship’s crew the night before, but she’s mostly preoccupied with Antonio Bay’s 100th birthday celebrations as the town’s civic leader. Kathy’s a high-strung, no-bullshit public figure who’s joined at the hip by her deadpan assistant, Nancy Kyes’s Sandy. The two women couldn’t be more different, and that’s precisely why they vibe so well. “You can be a very annoying person at times, but you do keep me together,” Kathy tells Sandy, lovingly. “Thank you, Mrs. Williams,” Sandy responds, recalling the monotone of The Graduate’s Ben.
When the two women visit Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) to confirm that he’ll give the blessing at the procession that night, they find the front door already open. It’s the only one that either of them is faced with during the film (it’s also daytime and no ghosts have knocked on it, to be clear) but they nevertheless react the way one ought to upon discovering something ominous. “Not a good sign,” Sandy says, sounding almost bored. Kathy and Sandy are unfortunately The Fog’s only women to interact with one another prior to the entire cast’s congregating at the church, but their collegial friendship and the fact that they seem to have been written as a package deal make them seemingly less vulnerable to its threat.
More tangibly impacted by the ghosts is Nick (Tom Atkins), a fisherman and close friend of the men aboard the Seagrass. He quickly involves the coast guard when the crew doesn’t come home, but has also picked up a hitchhiker-turned-fling over the course of the night: Jamie Lee Curtis’s Elizabeth. As a result, her storyline collapses into his, and what she expects to be a fun overnighter turns into something much more dire.
Elizabeth is quickly established as a freewheeler: When she tells Nick that he’s her 13th ride and he jokes that he’s unlucky, she teases, “We’ll see.” They sleep together within the hour, only exchanging names afterwards, and Elizabeth reveals that she was raised wealthy but is—by choice—hitchhiking her way to Vancouver to try and make it as an artist. And, just then, there’s a knock at his door. Elizabeth stays put, pulling the sheets slightly closer to her body, but Nick instantly hops out of bed to answer it. He’s saved only by the fact that the clock strikes one in the morning, the time when the six conspirators finished devising their cruel plan a hundred years prior. The ghosts have dissipated by the time Nick gets the door open, but the point is that he still opens the damn door.
It’s notable that in most of the scenes shared by Elizabeth and Nick, she bears the brunt of the ghosts’ terrorism—despite not even being a resident of Antonio Bay. In perhaps her most famous scene in the film, a ghost possesses the corpse of Dick Baxter—one of the men killed on the Seagrass—and then approaches her with a scalpel in the coroner’s office. She later becomes a sort of surrogate mother to Andy when Stevie can’t physically be there to save him. As ThoughtPusher wrote for Bitch Flicks in 2016, “The woman who fills the carefree Hitcher role is embroiled in the strange happenings of the cursed town and answers the call to save a child in need.”
Ultimately, the only woman in the film who does open the door for the fog is Mrs. Kobritz, Andy’s babysitter. She dies instantly, but in fairness to her, there’s no knock. Plus, the scene in question isn’t characterized by the same sort of hubris as Dan’s death scene. Mrs. Kobritz is visibly frightened, and ensures that Andy is in his room before venturing out into the fog. She inadvertently saves his life as a result, and so her death doubles as a sort of sacrifice on his behalf.
And that’s the thing: The women of this film go unnecessary lengths to save the men of Antonio Bay, or to keep them company while they run for their lives. No one expects Mrs. Kobritz to die for Andy; or for Stevie to guide the other characters to safety; or for Kathy to put on a smile for the town while her husband’s missing; or for Elizabeth to stay in this ghastly town with Nick, period. But without these women and their actions, The Fog would be a 10-minute short film of men gladly opening doors for ghosts.
by Sydney Urbanek
Sydney Urbanek is a writer and the founder of Reel Honey. Based in Toronto, she writes about film, music videos, and chronic illness. She knows the “Telephone” choreography but please don’t ask her to do it. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sydurbanek.
Categories: Feminist Criticism