Not John Carpenter’s best film (that would probably be The Thing), or my favorite of his (which is Prince of Darkness), but it’s the one that’s got a ghost story in it, so I’m including this one in my blogs for the Halloween season.
We start right off with the story, as told to us and a group of children gathered on a beach by an elderly man (John Houseman, who won’t be seen again after this introduction). As the hour of midnight approaches, he says that they have time for just one more tale.
It’s April 20, 1980; the 21st–which is about 5 minutes off–will be the 100th anniversary of the wreck of the Elizabeth Dane. The clipper ship lost its way in a sudden and unnaturally thick fog off nearby Spivey Point, when the crew spotted a light shining through the fog. The ship sailed toward it, perhaps mistaking it for the Point’s lighthouse, but the light was actually that of a bonfire–much like the one they’re all seated around. The Elizabeth Dane foundered on the sharp coastal rocks and sank. The old man makes much of the crew’s drowning, how their lungs filled with salt water and their eyes remained open as they sunk into the depths of the bay. After the ship had gone down with all aboard, the remarkably thick fog disappeared as quickly as it had come.
“But it is told by the fishermen, and their fathers and grandfathers, that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point, will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark and icy death.”
Goodnight, kids! Sleep well.
Nothing horrible happens to the group on the beach, but all over the town of Antonio Bay, strange things begin to happen after midnight.
Up at the church, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) is settling down in his study to an evening’s bottle of wine while listening to the local radio station, KAB, playing light jazz through what the sultry-voiced DJ calls the “the witching hour.” A stone suddenly drops down out of the wall above his desk, revealing a hollow space containing an old journal. When Father Malone opens the book, he sees that it belongs to his grandfather, also Father Malone from 1880 (I assume that both priests and the church are Episcopalian, not Catholic).
Elsewhere in town, car lights, horns, and alarms go off. The payphones outside the grocery market begin to ring and eject change. Inside the store, the shelves begin to shake; cans and bottles rattle as if there’s an earthquake. At the gas station, the pumps fly off their handles and spurt gas on the concrete. A car on the repairs platform goes chinging upwards toward the garage ceiling. TVs and radios turn on by themselves; the latter are all tuned to KAB, so the DJ and light jazz accompany most of these scenes.
The local weatherman Dan phones the DJ, Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), who is also the radio station’s owner. After some flirting, he informs her that his weather station’s radar has picked up what looks like a bank of fog about 25 miles off over the water. Over the air, Stevie warns the crew of the trawler Seagrass, which is doing some night fishing about 15 miles out, to be on the lookout for fog heading in from the east.
The Seagrass hears this warning, but the three men aboard are just lying around drinking beer and were about to head for home anyway. The captain, Al Williams, looks out the cabin window and says that he doesn’t see any fog… and then it comes surging, white and glowing, over the horizon. It swiftly surrounds them, pours into the ship’s generator, and shorts it out.
As Al and one of the men go out on deck, they see another ship looming out of the mists just off their rail, an old-fashioned, tall-masted ship. It disappears back into the fog, but a dark and shadowy figure is now standing on the deck with them.
“Who is that?” Al wonders.
Alas, he’s given no time to find out. He and his crew are slaughtered by more dark figures with billhooks, cutlasses, and other nasty-looking sharp instruments.
Dan calls KAB again to tell Stevie that her over-the-air warning was wrong: the fog is moving west, not east. She replies that the wind at the lighthouse that serves as her radio station is from the east and the fog couldn’t be moving against the wind.
Meanwhile, Nick (Tom Atkins) is driving back to Antonio Bay on a dark country road, when he stops to pick up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis). As she joins him in his truck, she asks, “Are you weird?”
Nick responds, “Yes, I am. Yes, I am weird.”
She’s delighted to hear it.
Then all the truck windows shatter.
Not that a truck full of broken glass dampens their immediate interest in each other. When we next see them, they’re at his place, in bed. Keep in mind that this is still during the hour between midnight and 1 a.m. Now that they’ve had sex, he asks her her name. It’s Elizabeth. Nick introduces himself. The ’70s were indeed a very different time.
They are getting to know something about each other, when the conversation is interrupted by a heavy knocking on the door. A shadowy figure can be seen standing just outside in a bright light. Nick gets up to see who’s there.
He opens the door just as the clock strikes 1:00 and the glass shatters.
When he looks outside, there’s no one in sight.
The next morning, a little boy named Andy, one of the children we saw listening to spooky stories, is wandering the beach. He sees a glinting object among the craggy rocks at the shore and investigates. A gold coin lies on the rocks, but before Andy can pick it up, a wave washes up over it. When the wave recedes, the coin is gone and instead there’s a broken, water-worn piece of wood with the word “Dane” carved on it.
Andy picks this board up and takes it home to show his mom. He lives in a beach-house on stilts over the water, and Mom is Stevie. Since she works late hours, she’s sleeping and not really interested in the soggy piece of wood the kid’s found.
When Nick gets up later in the morning, he hears about the Seagrass and his friend Al being missing. He knows how Al and the guys like to go out at night and chug down beer–he’s been on enough fishing trips with Al himself–but he also knows they’ve never gotten so drunk that they couldn’t get home. He goes out in a boat to search for the missing Seagrass. Elizabeth goes with him. She’s decided to stick around Antonio Bay for awhile.
In town, Mrs. Williams (Janet Leigh) and her snarky assistant Sandy are making sure that everything is ready for that evening’s 100th anniversary celebration. A new statue is going to be unveiled. Rather tactlessly, it’s of the Elizabeth Dane.
Mrs. Williams is a bit anxious, not just because of the upcoming ceremony, but because her husband Al hasn’t returned. She’s the one who called the Coast Guard about the Seagrass when it didn’t come in last night.
Mrs. Williams and Sandy go up to the church, which sits on a hill above the town. Though it’s still early in the day, Mrs. Williams is worried that Father Malone is “in his cups”. The church is dark and appears to be empty when the two women venture in–but then the tipsy Father provides a priestly jump-scare by popping unexpectedly out of the shadows at them.
He shows them the journal he found. In it, Grandfather Malone confesses that when a wealthy man afflicted with leprosy by the name of Blake wanted to settle a leper colony just a mile up the coast, he and five other prominent citizens of what would become Antonio Bay plotted to kill them before they landed. They deliberately set that fire to mislead Blake’s ship, the Elizabeth Dane. It wasn’t just a matter of keeping the lepers away, but a case of “wrecking”–which is piracy when you don’t have a ship of your own to attack other vessels on the sea. Blake had a treasure of gold coins with him aboard the Elizabeth Dane, which his murderers retrieved from the wreckage.
Father Malone wants to cancel the celebration. If Blake’s stolen gold was used to finance the founding of the township, then their anniversary ceremonies are a travesty. They’ll be “honoring murderers.” He refuses to participate by giving his benediction as planned, but Mrs. Williams is going ahead with ceremony otherwise.
Out in the ocean, Nick has found the Seagrass. Not only is no one aboard, but the ship looks like it’s been tipped underwater and exposed to freezing temperatures. The gauges are all broken and metal objects are rusted. And yet Nick knows that the ship was cleaned just before its last voyage. They do find one of the missing men: his eyeless body falls out of a cabinet onto Elizabeth as Nick tells her a spooky story about his father once finding an abandoned ship under similar circumstances. Nick’s dad also found a gold coin on that other derelict ship, which then disappeared from his zipped-up coat pocket.
Stevie must have been interested in that bit of board her son found after all, since she carries it with her that afternoon to the spectacularly situated KAB lighthouse out on Spivey Point.
While she’s setting up for that evening’s broadcast, the board starts to ooze water from the letters carved on it. The dripping water shorts Stevie’s tape recorder, which changes from the station promos she was listening to to a deep, man’s voice. Much of what it says is indistinct, but there’s something about the weight of a millstone, and it finishes with “Damn them all.”
The writing on the board briefly changes from “Dane” to “6 Must Die” before it bursts into flame. Stevie quickly puts it out with her fire extinguisher.
Things return to normal after that, but she’s spooked as she begins her broadcast.
Nick, meanwhile, has taken the one corpse he’s found back to shore. He’s confused by the state of his late friend. The body is wet and covered in seaweed. How can a man drown and not be in the water?
The local doctor or coroner (I’m not sure which) examines the corpse and confirms Nick’s impression that there is water in the lungs. Although they saw the man alive only yesterday, he looks as if he’s been underwater for a month.
While they’re talking about these strange circumstances in the doctor’s office, Elizabeth remains in the other room with the body. She has her back to it, so she doesn’t notice when the corpse gets up from its slab and comes toward her… until it’s right behind her. Then it falls on the floor. She screams, bringing the two men running. On the floor beside the body is written the numeral 3; we can assume the dead man wrote it.
As evening falls, the town is quiet. Everyone’s at the Antonio Bay centennial ceremony except for Stevie at her radio station, Dan at the weather station, and Andy with the old lady who babysits with him at home while his mother’s at work. Mrs. Williams is upset now that she’s heard the news about her missing and presumed dead husband, but the show must go on.
As the festivities begin, Nick phones Stevie to tell her about the weirdness he found on the Seagrass; he remembers that he heard her talk about the fog on the radio. She says the fog she saw out on the water last night was moving against the wind and glowing.
She’s about to tell him about the board, when she sees that the glowing fog has returned and is heading in from the sea toward the town right now!
The fog reaches the weather station first. Stevie phones Dan and tries to warn him to get out of there, but he thinks she’s either high or joking. When a bright light shines out of the fog that now surrounds him and there’s a heavy knock on the door, Dan answers it even though Stevie urges him not to–and he gets a sharp blade in the chest.
Nick and Elizabeth have left the ceremony to drive over to the lighthouse to talk to Stevie, but they quickly turn around when they hear about the fog at the weather station at the other end of the bay. It’s too late for them to do anything about Dan, but when they next hear Stevie plead over the radio for someone to rescue her son, they make it to the fog-swathed beach-house in time to get Andy out before he too is hacked to bits by the shadow figure that’s been chopping at his bedroom door to get at him. His babysitter isn’t so lucky.
Stevie tries to get the sheriff to phone her, but just as they make contact, the clever fog surges up the telephone poles and knocks out the lines. It then floods the town’s power station and takes the electricity out too. Since a candlelight procession was always part of the revealing of the statue, the conclusion of the evening’s ceremony continues as planned. Afterwards, most of the townsfolk go home.
Five people have been killed so far, but it’s right here at what should be the film’s high point–as the ghosts prowl for revenge through the town–that I think it loses its suspense. We know that 6 people must die; the spooky Dane board told us so. Must they be descendants of the 6 murderers who founded Antonio Bay, or will the ghosts be happy killing any old 6 they can? Father Malone is convinced it’s the former, and that he’s naturally going to be the 6th victim. But if he’s right, why do the ghosts menace Stevie and Andy? They aren’t native to the town, but recently moved to the California coast from Chicago; there’s never any mention that they have family here. Same with Elizabeth, who’s only in town by chance.
Even if Father Malone is wrong, at this point there’s just one other person who’s going to be killed, and a narrow field of possibilities among our main characters. Instead of anticipating a slaughter of helpless townsfolk, we are aware that everybody else is perfectly safe. As the fog fills the streets and cuts off escape for our heroes, forcing them to gather up at the church (except for Stevie, still at the lighthouse), the rest of the Antonio Bayers presumably have gone to bed. They sleep unaware of the vengeful ghosts and won’t hear about the horrors of the night until the next morning.
Nick. Elizabeth, Mrs. Williams, Andy, and Sandy are up at the church for the final siege. This is where Father Malone states that he must be the 6th one to die; he feels guilty enough about his ancestor’s crime, and perhaps believes that he’s worthless as a priest, that he’s ready to accept this fate. At the urging of his companions, he reads the rest of his grandfather’s journal to see if there’s information that will help them as the fog reaches the church and the ghosts try to get in.
I say “ghosts,” but this part is more like a zombie movie. The ghosts seem rather solid and more like the physically undead here that spirits, but there are some nice shots of their hands bursting through the stained glass.
Our heroes block the doors with furniture, and fight off the ghosts that reach in through the windows to get at them. Sandy is grabbed by the hair and her friends try to free her from the ghost’s grip.
But the ghosts must be insubstantial enough to drift inside with the fog. An ominous collection of dark figures appears among the pews in the main body of the church.
Further reading informs Father Malone that the stolen gold went missing soon after the murders; his grandfather took it and hid it where the other conspirators wouldn’t find it. He figures out where the missing gold went to–fortunately, it’s right there in the church. Hoping that this is what Blake wants, he carries it out to offer it, and his own life, to the glowy-eyed revenant who leads the others.
Glowy-eyed Blake accepts the gold, and he and his leper-ghost-zombie friends go away. The one that’s gripping Sandy’s hair disappears, leaving the besieged group suddenly fighting against nothing. Even the ghosts who have chased Stevie up onto the roof of the lighthouse are gone. The fog rolls away, back out to sea. The town is quiet again.
And that’s the end… or is it? It turns out that the Father was right after all.
There’s a lot to like in this movie, but I like the set-up better than the finale. The “witching hour” as strange things happen all over town is a wonderful, eerie series of scenes, introducing us to Antonio Bay and most of our main characters, all accompanied by Stevie’s voice and her music over the radio. It’s reminiscent of the UFO scenes in Close Encounters, and the spilling gas pumps are an homage to The Birds (although this gas doesn’t set half the town on fire). The location is beautiful and the film captures it in shots of the sweeping bay, the setting of the lighthouse, and cars driving along the coastal roads.
There are also some amusing horror in-jokes. The old storyteller at the beginning of the movie is Mr. Machen. The doctor/coroner is named Phibes. If you listen to the Coast Guard’s radio announcement about the missing Seagrass, you can catch a couple of familiar Lovecraftian names: Whateley Reef, Arkham Point.
On the other hand, some of the horror pieces seem pointless and gratuitous, added in only to up the (rather subdued) gore factor. Particularly the very last one. It’s meant to be a shock twist, a final scare, but what I’m left thinking is: If Blake felt that way about it, why not take up Father Malone’s offer when he made it? Was it just a last little ghostly trick?