The overture is clearly founded on Meet Me in St. Louis, with John Houseman as Harry Davenport, you might say -- his magisterial rumble about past horrors delivered to transfixed children around a campfire embodies the basic conceptual collaboration of cinema (image serves the word, word evokes the image) for John Carpenter, who fuses the two in a peerless widescreen composition. Furthermore, the narrative is structured between voice and body, with Adrienne Barbeau shaping images of her own in the minds of listeners as a late-night disc-jockey operating a lonely lighthouse, and a trucker (Tom Atkins) and a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) supplying the physical dynamics as needed. "Nothing but water, but it sure beats Chicago," Barbeau sighs while pondering the oceanic expanses surrounding sleepy Antonio Bay, and the Hawksianism of Debra Hill's screenplay is just enough to sketch in the terseness of a character ready to face any trouble as it arises, even in the form of the phosphorescent fog ominously billowing into town. Alarms blare and generators short-circuit as the mist creeps in, meat hooks are soon rapping on the doors of unsuspecting townsfolk. A moldy diary, unearthed in church, illuminates things by revealing ancient atrocities on which the burg was erected: "We are honoring murderers," the soused priest (Hal Holbrook) muses about the centennial celebration as past oppression catches up with modern complacency, a thesis as overlooked here as it was in Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. A chunk of driftwood secretes blood rather than salt water, Curtis shivers in the foreground as a waterlogged ghoul shifts under the sheets on the morgue slab behind her, avenging phantoms break through stained-glass windows -- all of it done with Val Lewtonesque elegance, each frisson set up spatially with consummate calm. Barbeau takes to the airwaves to warn listeners to "look across the water... into the darkness," but Carpenter knows that darkness (engulfing, moral, political) emanates from within, or as Poe's "dreams within dreams." With Janet Leigh, James Canning, Charles Cyphers, and Nancy Kyes.
--- Fernando F. Croce