The greatest ’80s horror movie of all time is all about fog

“The Fog” opens with the tension of a ticking pocket watch dangled above the glow of a crackling campfire. 

The minute hand tremors precariously close to midnight. But there’s enough time for one more ghost story, the seafaring narrator tells a circle of children seated on pieces of driftwood, the howling gusts of salty Northern California air providing a sinister accompaniment to the tale. 

He speaks of a shipwreck that occurred on this very coastline nearly a century ago, but it was no accident. The founders of their sleepy town of Antonio Bay purposefully misguided and sank the boat, drowning the men aboard so they could steal their gold to build a church and establish their own town. And here’s where the fog comes in: Generations of fishermen have believed that when it returns, a curse will overtake the town — and with it, the ghostly crew will rise from the water, seeking their revenge. As Antonio Bay prepares to celebrate its centenary, the tale becomes a gory reality as the fog rolls in from the bay, shrouding the ghosts while they prowl the streets to claim their victims the hour after midnight.

Antonio Bay might be a fictional place, but any Bay Area local will recognize the movie’s sweeping backdrop as that of Point Reyes Station, about 40 miles north of San Francisco, with additional exterior shots filmed at Drake’s Beach, Tomales Bay, Inverness and Bodega Bay. 

The title sequence of "The Fog" overlooking Drake's Beach. 

The title sequence of “The Fog” overlooking Drake’s Beach. 

Debra Hill Productions

Maybe it’s been years since you’ve seen “The Fog,” or you’ve mistaken it with the flop of a follow-up that was its 2005 remake. Perhaps you’ve never seen it at all. In any case, I’m here to tell you it’s essential viewing for Halloween, made all the more chilling if you live in the Bay Area. 

It features a legendary cast, namely real life mother-daughter duo Janet Leigh (“Psycho”) and Jamie Lee Curtis (fresh off her breakout role as final girl Laurie Strode in 1978’s “Halloween”), while Adrienne Barbeau captivates as the mysterious DJ Stevie Wayne, hosting her late night radio show from an isolated lighthouse. “The Fog” establishes an eerie ambiance on a shoestring budget utilizing the moody, natural lighting of a full moon (which the film’s 30-day shooting schedule started and finished on) and practical effects masterminded by Rob Bottin, who also helped create the “Star Wars” cantina band and would go on to win an Oscar for his work on “Total Recall.” Add to that the Bay Area’s natural mystique, an eerie synthesizer score and a deft balance of horror and humor that would become the trademark of director and composer John Carpenter, and the result is a criminally overlooked film.

Shot on the heels of the success of “Halloween,” which would lay the foundation for decades of slasher movies to come, Carpenter had a tall order to fill as he sought inspiration for a new film. On a trip to Stonehenge, he and the late screenwriter-producer Debra Hill observed a distant fog bank on the horizon and let their imaginations get carried away.

“What if there was something in that fog? Wouldn’t that be scary?” Hill remembered Carpenter telling her in a DVD commentary for the film. “And that’s how it sort of evolved.” 

Jamie Lee Curtis in "The Fog." 

Jamie Lee Curtis in “The Fog.” 

Debra Hill Productions

Later, the pair would go on a location scouting trip along the coast of California and discover the Point Reyes Lighthouse in Inverness. 

“It was just perched out on a cliff, and it looked very scary,” said Hill. 

They were so taken by the lighthouse — and the cape, known as the second foggiest point in North America — that Carpenter decided to buy a house in the area and lived there for many years, utilizing his surroundings as the setting for one of his later films, a remake of “Village of the Damned.” 

“[It’s] one of the most beautiful areas in the entire world,” he said. 

John Carpenter and Janet Leigh on the set of "The Fog." 

John Carpenter and Janet Leigh on the set of “The Fog.” 

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Throughout the film — which takes place over the course of 24 hours — the residents of Antonio Bay encounter a chain of unexplained events as midnight approaches. Car windows shatter. A boat out at sea with a few of the local fishermen aboard goes missing. A creepy, distorted voice disrupts the signal on Wayne’s radio show.

All of these supernatural occurrences culminate, of course, in the greenish hue of the glowing fog that blankets the town in terror. Some of it was real, but the crew also utilized dry ice and liquid nitrogen, which wasn’t exactly a breeze for the actors on set. 

“It wasn’t pleasant to work with the fog,” Barbeau said in a 1980 interview with Roger Ebert, “and that’s an understatement. They made it out of kerosene and water. It was smelly and sticky and the entire production was permeated with it. And there was a basic problem: It was the easiest thing in the world to get the fog into a scene, but it was almost impossible to get it out. We had to act backwards in some scenes: They’d blow the fog in and have us move in reverse, and then reverse the film to create the illusion that the fog was retreating. I had one scene in which I had to move from terror to apprehension to interest to indifference, so they could then reverse it for the fog.”

Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) speaks during her radio show inside the lighthouse. 

Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) speaks during her radio show inside the lighthouse. 

Debra Hill Productions

When the fog isn’t busy looming over the town as a distant threat, it’s seeping underneath the front doors of the ghosts’ victims, followed by three soft knocks. 


Loretta Farley, a retired ranger with the National Park Service who gave many tours of the Point Reyes Lighthouse over her 20-year career there, said this became a running gag among the staff. There used to be apartments at the lighthouse in the 1980s, she said, and when a new tenant moved in, they would encourage them to watch the film.

“Then someone would slip out and knock on their door three times to startle the new neighbor and let them know the vengeful sailors were coming,” Farley told SFGATE, laughing. All jokes aside, she added, “I’ve seen ‘The Fog’ at least 15 or 20 times over the years. I’ve bought a number of copies of the film because it’s a great travelogue of West Marin, the lighthouse, the stairs. If you know the area and you’re from the bay and see the scenery, it’s kind of special that way.”

The Point Reyes Lighthouse in Marin County.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse in Marin County.

NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Farley, who grew up in San Rafael and at one point lived in a house that appeared in “Village of the Damned,” said the lighthouse looks just as it did during the filming of “The Fog” and offers many of the same views.

“It resonates with some folks who saw the movie and seek it out. It’s a very distinctive looking, memorable landmark, and a wonderful place to watch whales in the winter,” she said.

Built in 1870, the lighthouse was recently refurbished for its 150th anniversary. Farley noted that while it obviously doesn’t have its own radio station inside — she recommends KWMR headquartered nearby for that — people can visit on weekends and take in the serene landscape. With the distant echoes of seagulls and crashing waves, the atmosphere is a sharp contrast to the still-functional lighthouse’s deadly ties in the film.

“It was a top tier technology,” she said. “It saved many, many lives.” 

Director John Carpenter, Hal Holbrook and Janet Leigh on the set of "The Fog."

Director John Carpenter, Hal Holbrook and Janet Leigh on the set of “The Fog.”

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The premise of “The Fog” seems prescient, especially now that we’ve lived through a year-plus of a pandemic that’s caused people to fear leaving their own homes. It perfectly captures the dread of isolation and broken communication — the sense of feeling terrified of an invisible threat that you can’t quite understand because of its ever-changing nature.

But in an odd way, the film is also deeply comforting, with its relatable dialogue, moments of genuine empathy and Wayne’s soothing voice over the crackling radio, which serves as a unifying force that connects all of the characters and ultimately helps them survive.

It also offers a teaching moment.

“There’s one thing I’ve learned,” said Hill in the DVD commentary. “If there’s a knock on the door and it’s at night, you don’t answer it.”

“Especially if there’s fog outside,” joked Carpenter. 

“The Fog” is available to stream for free on Tubi.

Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis) is picked up by Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) and they drive down Bear Valley Road in Olema. 

Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis) is picked up by Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) and they drive down Bear Valley Road in Olema. 

Debra Hill Productions

Stevie Wayne's son Andy (Ty Mitchell) goes fishing on Drake's Beach one morning and finds a mysterious plank of wood tracing back to the century-old shipwreck. This scene was filmed just down the hill from where Alfred Hitchcock shot some of "The Birds." 

Stevie Wayne’s son Andy (Ty Mitchell) goes fishing on Drake’s Beach one morning and finds a mysterious plank of wood tracing back to the century-old shipwreck. This scene was filmed just down the hill from where Alfred Hitchcock shot some of “The Birds.” 

Debra Hill Productions

Stevie Wayne's (Adrienne Barbeau) Antonio Bay cabin is actually located on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Inverness. 

Stevie Wayne’s (Adrienne Barbeau) Antonio Bay cabin is actually located on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Inverness. 

Debra Hill Productions

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