The Spookily Skillful Handling of Sound in John Carpenter’s “The Fog”

Every picture tells a story. But the sound sells the story. An effective horror film understands sound and vision are equal partners in getting the message across. Imagine watching the shower scene in Psycho without Bernard Herrmann’s unnerving violin screech; or Laurie Strode’s final chase through Michael’s murderground minus John Carpenter’s percussive piano riff. These aural ingredients are as vital and substantial to the film’s effect as the visuals.

Filmmakers employ sound design to communicate ideas. The process of building and mixing sound enhances a picture’s visual narrative. Even minor or subtle inclusions of sound have the power to stimulate the emotions of viewers. (Jack’s descent into madness in The Shining is buttressed by an atmospheric sound design—the clicking of the typewriter, the rolling of the tricycle over the wood and carpet, the thud of the tennis ball against the wall.)

A pioneer of modern horror cinema, director/musician John Carpenter employed the elements of film to produce enthralling works of terror and tension throughout his career. Celebrated for his superb pacing and striking cinematography, Carpenter also managed to put a unique stamp on each film by utilizing exquisite sound design. By applying the right combination of natural sound with music and effects, he was able to evoke terror in audiences, compelling them to substitutionally endure the trials and tribulations of the characters on screen.

The syncopated notes of Halloween’s score created a sense of dread and frantic desperation in viewers; the discordant sounds that accompanied the dream sequences in Prince of Darkness reflected the disorientation of onlookers.

With The Fog, Carpenter created an aural world to bolster the intense fear and anxiety of audiences, transporting them directly into the madness sweeping its fictitious town of Antonio Bay.

Carpenter’s first picture as an established filmmaker following the megahit Halloween, The Fog draws from the same B-movie stylings as its predecessor, offering the same gory surprises and applying a similarly textured sound structure to heighten suspense.

The score is the most expressive in Carpenter’s filmography. The sparse keyboard movements and metronomic rhythms roll through you like a stately church tune.

Before the film commences, there is a quote from Edgar Allan Poe: “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” An allusion to the misleading impression of reality, the quote is one of many devices employed by Carpenter to awaken the imagination of viewers. A faint wind hums a chilling tune in the background; a stopwatch ticks away the seconds, pulling you helplessly closer to the start of the picture.

The silver timepiece emerges from the darkness. It’s slammed closed by the giant paw of a weathered sailor (John Housman), the sharp sound flooding the audience with adrenaline. The grizzled fisherman recounts the tale of Captain Blake and the ill-fated crew of the Elizabeth Dane to a group of children huddled around a campfire. 100 years ago their ship was drawn onto the rocks, robbed of its treasures and sunk to the bottom of the sea. The pillaged gold was used to establish the coastal town of Antonio Bay. Now it seems their spirits have returned under the cover of fog for revenge.

The town’s characters are linked by Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), a disc jockey who transmits jazz tunes from her radio station within the town’s lighthouse. She opens her first broadcast by inviting the townsfolk, along with the viewing audience to “stay here with me.” Carpenter infuses the discordant rhythms of the jazz songs into the film, manipulating them to guide the audience’s experience. Notes flow from unassuming radios and weave into the pulsating rhythms of the score to create a creepy soundscape.

As the fog descends upon the town, it brings with it a series of strange manifestations. Payphones ring in unison, car horns blare rambunctiously, bottles rattle off shelves, gas pumps gurgle and slosh petrol, alarms wail in the night. The sounds wrap around you, taking hold of your brain and throwing you into a fit of fright. Noises are amplified, giving each haunting added weight and texture while establishing the ghostly atmosphere.

Three fishermen navigate their ship back to shore when their vessel is swallowed by a blanket of white. Carpenter relies on a simple, monotonous drone to drive the tension. The seafarers advance cautiously across the deck. Their eyes strain to see through the ghastly mist. The score sucks out. Silence ambushes the soundtrack. Onlookers grow uncomfortable, like they’ve been deprived of something and are forced to use their imagination to fill in the blank space. Artifice merges with verisimilitude as viewers open to the idea of being attacked by disembodied spirits. Anticipation becomes tangible. A shrill synth stabs through the soundscape as Blake’s sword slices the soft flesh of the crew members. The visceral sound of steel pulling against muscle brings the violence to life.

Later, a coroner (Darwin Jostin), along with friends Nick (Tom Atkins) and Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), examines the lifeless body of one of the deceased fishermen. Nick and Dr. Phibes excuse themselves from the room leaving Elizabeth alone with the corpse. The familiar, low-pulsing drone kicks in. As Elizabeth attempts to collect herself, Carpenter cuts to surgical tools shaking against a metal tray, a symbolic representation of the hysteria and panic brewing within her. The cadaver rises from the table and crashes to the floor. Any chance of Elizabeth regaining composure plunges to the linoleum along with the dead fisherman.

That night Stevie receives a call from Dan, (Charles Cyphers) the local weatherman, warning her about another fog bank moving in. The fog hems in around the weather station. Something knocks eerily against Dan’s door. Knock, knock, knock. Stevie listens helplessly on the other end of the line as Dan is slaughtered by Blake and his men. Like the audience watching from their cushion seats, she is forced to endure the horror but is powerless to stop it.

As the fog wreaks havoc on the town, Stevie remains steadfast, encouraging her listeners to assemble at the church with poise and confidence. Diegetic and non-diegetic sounds converge to create a dynamic sound environment. Powerlines pop, generators explode, boat horns howl in the darkness. Violence screams out from the screen. The natural sounds are as excruciating as those generated during the kill sequences.

The film closes with the town priest (Hal Holbrook) offering himself to Blake as sacrifice. The two meet at the center of the church, their dark bodies silhouetted against the pale mass. Blake raises his broad weapon above his head. The picture cuts to black. We hear the blade slice through the air before cutting through the fatty tissue of Father Malone’s neck. Like so much else in the picture, Blake’s revenge and the fate of the priest are managed via sound.

We live in a visual age. There is immense power in the image. Cinematography and its optical counterparts however do not exist independent of one another. Rather, they harmonize to create entertaining and inventive movie going experiences. The Fog’s atmospheric arrangement takes hold of you without effort. The riff-driven score, low rumbling drones and penetrating synth hits build tension; potent sound effects and fits of silence heighten drama and maintain the audience’s emotional strain long after the closing credits. Without Carpenter’s artful, compelling and effective use of sound design, the supernatural themes and spooky atmosphere of the film would lose much of their power. In a career full of dreadfully sublime efforts, The Fog is the filmmaker at his absolute finest.

Ernie Rockelman

Ernie loves movies. He's not so great talking about them, but he's pretty okay writing about them. He worked as a critic for the Press of AC for a number of years. Now he teaches film to high school kids and occasionally makes movies that nobody sees.

Avatar

3 thoughts on “The Spookily Skillful Handling of Sound in John Carpenter’s “The Fog”

  • Avatar
    June 10, 2020 at 8:31 pm
    Permalink

    That was a great fucking article! And it is so true, sound design and score are absolutely essential to horror films (and, truthfully, all films).

    Reply
  • Avatar
    June 26, 2020 at 11:10 am
    Permalink

    Nice to see recognition and a well-composed ode to such an essential albeit invisible element to the motion picture. Thank you for writing.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      July 2, 2020 at 11:53 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you for reading! And for the comment.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *