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Something Else to Watch Out For

Jan/Feb 2009

WAY BACK IN 1913. A fellow named Edward Bullough noticed there was something funny about fog. He was on a boat at sea when it entered a fog bank and everyone on board, including himself, got pretty antsy because you couldn’t see a damn thing. Even objects close by looked a bit blurry and misshapen. His wife, hanging on the deck railing but a few feet away, appeared in the swirling murk like one of the witches of Endor just as he had begun to suspect she was, anyhow. Right off the bat he labeled this effect ‘psychical distance’, a sense of being separated from reality and not being keen about it, either. Unfortunately Mr. Bullough also called this sensation a ‘disjointedness’ and much later a group of youths misunderstood his theory and applied it to mean things like, ‘Hey man, try dis joint, it’s far out’ — the ‘distance’, you see.

Now Mr. Bullough’s ‘psychical distance’ was actually an idea he had about the aesthetic response to art and early filmmakers apparently became very fond of it, especially the fog part. And, as you know, there hasn’t been a vampire, a werewolf, a Frankenstein, or Jack the Ripper film since “Nosferatu” that doesn’t have a generous lathering of fog all over the place. One of the obvious advantages of loads of fog, besides its creepiness, is its ability to conceal shoddy sets and over-the-hill actors. And it’s cheap, too.

Still, fog remained no more than background to the blood-sucking people and other monsters that wandered through its enveloping billows, a mere second-banana, so to speak, even waiting at times for a full moon before making a decent entrance. There was simply no recognition for the major contribution fog made to any film it was in. Well, it was that way until 1980 when John Carpenter, following the success of “Halloween”, decided to do something about it. Clint Eastwood had made a half-hearted effort when in 1971 he tossed in a bit of California’s coastal fog at the beginning of “Play Misty for Me”. However, this was entirely misleading and the ‘misty’ had no dramatic connection to the fog who had thought the film’s title would at least give it some cast credit. Well, Sir, Mr. Carpenter changed all that with “The Fog”, a film that made fog the central motivation factor, up-staging all the actors including Jamie Lee Curtis, pressing up against windows, sneaking under doors, spewing out pirates a mile a minute. Fog at least had come into its own, taking a place alongside cornfields as fearsome things that we must watch out for. As we have learned now from this and previous movies, fogs and cornfields (see my earlier report on the horror of cornfields) conceal all manner of terrible things.

“The Fog” was not the end of fog’s hideous career. In 2007 came “The Mist”, although I have some reservations about the title. A mist to me is something that sprays out of an aerosol can and the mist, so called, in the film seems to have the consistency of vanilla pudding — it’s really a fog and a pretty thick one at that. A rose by any other name, I suppose, yet I feel you should call something for what it is, no matter that you’ve lifted the plot from a Stephen King novel and some other director has a lock on the title. At any rate, “The Mist” is a fair vehicle for fog, academy award performance without a doubt despite a certain shakiness in the story’s rationale. To say a fog loaded with gigantic flesh-eating bugs had slipped out a window to another world opened by a military experiment and let it go at that doesn’t really satisfy. There were other confusions especially regarding the conclusion and I figure the writers got into  lot of argument until finally one of them said, ‘To hell with it; at the end of 196 minutes the cast must be exhausted so we’ll have the lead human actor shoot all the remaining principals and be done with it’ — and they did.

I must offer a caution here, something to think about. You might recall that any film which has a scene or two taking place in heaven shows a great deal of fog — it’s just all over. True, it’s not the sort of fog that seems to be reaching out to grab you; more a bouncy, cottony type. “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” and its remake, “Heaven Can Wait”, come to mind. Why, when Robert Montgomery and Warren Beatty walk about heaven they kick up a little non-threatening puffs of the stuff. What does this mean? Are somewhere in heaven’s fog enormous killer insects and vengeful pirates just waiting for you? Isn’t that supposed to be situated elsewhere? Surely there is a difference between a sinister, vanilla pudding fog and the Marshmallow Fluff fog that makes up a filmic heaven. It’s something to think about, I can tell you.