John Carpenter’s 1980 supernatural thriller “The Fog” begins with a scene shot on a Los Angeles soundstage. The late, great actor John Houseman is telling a campfire story to a group of children on what appears to be a beach in the fictional town of Antonio Bay. The story involves an old ship, damned to the sea, with a haunted crew that will one day find revenge on the townspeople who conspired to cause the crew’s watery demise.
“When the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea … will rise up,” Houseman’s character says, sending chills down the spines of his young audience. It’s a wonderfully effective way to kick off the film — especially when the camera pans up, and, thanks to some editing magic, the audience sees a wide-screen image of the Point Reyes shoreline at night.
The shot is both beautiful and eerie, setting the mood for what might be the most underrated film in Carpenter’s career. “The Fog” is the director’s follow-up to the 1978 slasher film “Halloween,” which was produced for $300,000 before becoming the location’s then-most successful independent film of all time.
While “Halloween” terrified audiences by bringing back the kind of violence and terror of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” “The Fog” was a different kind of thriller. It’s a film that relies more on atmosphere than jump scares. “The Fog” builds suspense as secrets are revealed about a century-old curse that brings the undead back to Antonio Bay, and Point Reyes’ seaside location serves the story perfectly.
“The idea we had was to tell a classic ghost story,” Carpenter says in “The Fog”’s DVD director commentary. His co-writer and producer Debra Hill adds that the point of inspiration came when the former couple took a trip to England’s Stonehenge monuments and noticed a fog creeping across the lowlands. “[Carpenter] said to me, ‘What if there is something in that fog? Wouldn’t that be scary?’”
“The story came from an actual event in California history,” Carpenter says. “It happened off the coast of Santa Barbara. A ship was sunk that was carrying lots of gold and it was pirated and so forth. We just added the ghostly aspect.”
With the idea in mind, the production team needed to find a location.
“We took a trip up the coastline, up Route One, and we stopped at all these different lighthouses along the way,” Hill says on the DVD. “And when we stopped at this particular lighthouse [in Point Reyes], we noticed that it was perched out on this cliff. It was very scary, very beautiful, and very moody. And we knew it was the perfect place to film this movie. And, it turns out, it’s the second foggiest place in America, the first being Nantucket Island.”
“This is one of the most beautiful areas in the entire world — Point Reyes, California, and Inverness,” says Carpenter. “I fell in love with the place, so much so that I bought a house.”
Location, Location, Location
One reason to revisit “The Fog” — or to watch it for the first time — is the spectacular cinematography covering western Marin and Sonoma counties.
On the DVD commentary for the film, Carpenter and Hill clearly enjoy reminiscing about their experience making “The Fog” in the North Bay. Here are some of the locations to look for in the film:
Carpenter and Hill ventured north to shoot in locations that the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, used decades before in one of his classic thrillers. “We used the wharf in front of the restaurant where everyone was trapped in ‘The Birds,’” Carpenter says, referring to Hitchcock’s 1963 film that used Bodega Bay to spectacular effect.
“It’s a very, very beautiful location,” Carpenter says. “As legend has it, Sir Francis Drake landed on this location with his ships to trade with the [Native Americans]. It’s just an incredible location.”
Great Beach/North Beach
Star Adrienne Barbeau takes a daytime drive in a convertible Jeep along the highway adjacent to this spectacular shoreline. Cinematographer Dean Cundey makes impressive use of the wide-screen Panavision format to capture the stunning scenery.
Gulf of the Farallones
The Point Reyes lighthouse is a major location, also portrayed in the film as the site of a radio station. Adrienne Barbeau, who plays a jazz DJ, is seen descending the nearly 300 steps to the lighthouse, on her way to her night gig spinning records, and noticing that a strange, thick fogbank is making its way to the shore. “We romanticized the idea of a radio station by putting it in a lighthouse,” Carpenter recalls. “I thought it was a great idea.”
As beautiful as the lighthouse was as a location, the weather wasn’t always cooperative in the production. “[The lighthouse] is very untypical; it’s not a tall tower,” Hill says on the DVD. “It is built way out on a point. It was very, very windy at the lighthouse. It caused considerable problems trying to shoot it — we ended up having to shoot a number of plates of the lighthouse and then marrying the fog to it later.”
While the production used exterior shots of the Point Reyes lighthouse throughout the film, all the interior scenes of Barbeau broadcasting are filmed on a set in Southern California. The spiral staircase used in the interior set was originally used in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
Barbeau’s character lives in a beautiful house along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. The house, a private residence on the waterline, is still there. Not far away along the same boulevard is the road leading up to a church that is pivotal in the story, although the church that appears in the film is not actually in the North Bay. The large cross at the side of the road is.
“We shot at a restaurant called Jerry’s Farmhouse (now Farm House restaurant and bar at the Lodge Point Reyes),” says Carpenter. “It’s still a delightful place to go and eat.”
Point Reyes Station
Look for Bear Valley Road as the place Jamie Lee Curtis is picked up hitchhiking early in the film. The town of Point Reyes Station is used throughout “The Fog,” especially in the film’s climax as the titular fog (usually dry ice blown into the camera shot) creeps in from the coast to wreak havoc.
From Box Office Sleeper to Cult Classic
“The Fog” was no “Halloween” at the box office, but it still fared well in its initial release. Produced for a budget of $1.1 million, the film grossed a respectable $21 million in 1980. (The top-grossing horror film that year was “The Shining,” with $44 million.) “The Fog”’s reputation has grown considerably in the nearly 40 years since its initial release. One reason is the cast, which is packed with well-known actors including Houseman and Hal Holbrook. In a bit of horror film serendipity, Jamie Lee Curtis, whose breakthrough role was in Carpenter’s “Halloween” two years earlier, gets to share a scene with her mom, Janet Leigh, who starred in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
But the main reason “The Fog” holds up so well is its creepy atmosphere, thanks to Carpenter’s sure-handed direction (he also composed the score, as he has done for most of his movies). The film’s wide-screen photography of recognizable coastal locations calls out to be seen on the biggest screen possible, preferably on the recently released Blu-ray special edition.
Carpenter Returns to the Coast
In 1995, Carpenter returned to the North Bay to film a remake of the 1960 British cult chiller “Village of the Damned.” The movie was not a financial success, and while it is not as effective a thriller as “The Fog,” it is still interesting for a number of reasons.
“Village of the Damned” is the last project the late Christopher Reeve filmed before having a horseback riding accident that left him paralyzed. The movie also features Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker from the “Star Wars” films) in a wild performance as an unhinged priest.
Once again, Carpenter and his director of photography, Gary Kibbe, shot the North Bay locations effectively. Inverness, Nicasio, and Point Reyes Station all look beautiful but also isolated — which serves the science-fiction plot involving a gang of alien children intent on crushing the peaceful Marin County community with their glowing eyes and telekinetic powers.
As the second half of a DVD double feature, “Village of the Damned” pairs perfectly with “The Fog.”
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine.