By Charlie Brigden
“Eleven fifty-five. Almost midnight… enough time for one more story.”
So begins The Fog, John Carpenter’s homage to the spooky stories of old where a group of ghostly pirates besiege a small Californian town in revenge for their death at the hands of the town founders. Like most of Carpenter’s movies, the film not only has a big cult following but also a beloved music score which itself has a history as intriguing as that of Antonio Bay. Now the score has been given a new release by Silva Screen, it’s the perfect time to take a stroll down to the local lighthouse and delve into a classic horror soundtrack.
As has been documented many times, John Carpenter essentially made The Fog twice. His first cut – including a full music score – was seen as disastrous by Carpenter and friends, so the picture was quickly re-shot, re-edited and re-scored with the results much improved. Carpenter states in the liner notes for the original LP that the “music was heavy-handed and obvious,” so its replacement score erred more on the side of subtlety, using delicate and under-stated notes to create a moody atmosphere from which to draw the horror out.
That doesn’t mean that it’s completely an ambient mood piece but more that the score sets a tone for the film that slowly rises in intensity, which then allows Carpenter’s synthesisers to start their droning and wailing when the shit starts to go down. The tone is established by the structure of the film, which slowly burns with a sense of growing unease, occasionally punctuated by scares and doses of classic-period gore in a mix of the classical ghost story model with more modern horror sensibilities.
The original releases of the score have been, to be kind, controversial. The original LP was released in 1984 by Varese Sarabande and was reissued as an expanded edition by Silva in 2000 (who at the same time also released an expanded album of Carpenter’s Escape From New York). But whilst the liner notes for both albums referred to the failure of the first score and the second score’s rescue, much of the included music came from the aborted cut of the film, the one Carpenter despised so much.
That original expanded edition is included as the first disc of this double-CD set (named as “The 2000 Remixed Soundtrack Album”) and features the original LP program, along with six bonus tracks. The listening experience of this album is oddly disjointed, a random mishmash of the cut material and the new score, including a couple of reprisals of the main title theme. Some of it is certainly heavy-handed although it retains the intensity that Carpenter’s scores are infamous for, and is undoubtedly more in your face than the later score. Nevertheless it’s still an interesting listen, and having the original album assembly – or at least the ability to create it – is always a plus for me, especially as soundtrack albums are usually different than the final score as a result of the crazy deadlines composers have to submit their album program.
Of course, given that the first disc has been on the market for twelve years the real meat of the set is on disc two, with what is referred to on the cover as “The Original 1980 Score Cues.” This is the material fans of the score (including myself) have wanted for years, with the time in-between filled by the isolated score on the laserdisc. It’s worth noting that this album is not claiming to be a 100% accurate representation of the score, and as such Randall Larson’s liner notes explain that the score “wasn’t built to the movie, it was built by sitting in the recording studio doing cues,” according to longtime Carpenter collaborator Alan Howarth, who also worked on this CD. “John made a lot of bits and pieces that he was going to cut together later in the editing room and build layers for the film. I’ve tried to do a similar reconstruction of John’s work, by layering tracks in the same way, based on how it was done in the movie.”
The score itself is spine-chilling from the first second, as the tone is immediately set by the foreboding and unsettling piano theme that reappears throughout the film and which scores the opening ghost story. The notes, often accompanied by the trademark Carpenter drone, give an disconcerting feel to the film which never really lets up. Carpenter uses a lot of almost minimalist passages – such as the interesting set of high notes in ‘Walk To Lighthouse’ – that walk the melodic line and keep up the unease, but it isn’t all subtetly. Johnny isn’t afraid to bring out his famous stingers, and there are some intense moments that arise from his use of electronic sounds. A notable example of this is the steady rising pulse in ‘Morgue’, which ends with a killer stinger that made me jump a mile, and the swirling noises at the end of ‘Dane’ that sound like unintelligible vocal phrases and subsequently gave me the musical heebie-jeebies.
Speaking of electronics, there are a few moments on both discs when the dreaded “sound effect” rears its ugly head. However, none of these are ever a dealbreaker, or at least don’t draw the reaction that albums that have integrated effects and dialogue in the past have been given. The first disc has a couple of non-musical elements that actually bookend the disc: the excellent John Houseman prologue, the music for which is presented without dialogue later on in the program; and a brief Jamie-Lee Curtis interview which is top and tailed by two promos for Antonio Bay’s KAB Radio (although unfortunately neither feature the uber-sexy voice of Adrienne Barbeau’s Stevie Wayne).
But it’s an element on the actual score that has, well, got fans in a bit of a tizzy. According to the notes, when Mr. Howarth was looking at the raw tracks he found that some of them contained a foghorn effect from the film and believed this added to the general atmosphere of Carpenter’s music (no idea what the director himself thinks). Thus on a few tracks you will hear these foghorns, which actually work okay, as in they don’t ruin it. If I was making the decisions, I probably would’ve thought long and hard about including them and maybe would’ve had a chat with Mr. Carpenter, but given that I’m not and I have no idea whether or not any said conversation ever took place, I’m going to not worry that much about it.
Another reason I’m not going to worry much is that, with or without those pesky foghorns, this album is a fine piece of work. It’s great to have the original record as a curio (especially as with the price the CD is available for it’s essentially free) but the real reason for purchase is the amazing second disc. Carpenter’s haunting score really pulls the film together, but isolated away from the picture it becomes a truly rewarding listen, especially with the great sound even coming from a mono source. The creepy main title theme will stick in your head and there’s some really iconic music on here – the oft-requested cue where Janet Leigh drives to the church (on here as ‘Stevie’s Lighthouse’ and the stirring end titles – and it’s hard not to echo Stevie Wayne’s words from the end of the film. So when you’re next in a music shop or wandering around online, make sure you do one thing: look for The Fog.
THE FOG is out now from Silva Screen Records