Mr Machen (John Houseman), an old fisherman, sits on a beach next to a camp-fire with group of children telling them spooky stories to take them up to midnight. He tells the story of a tragic shipwreck that was involved in the founding of their town of Antonio Bay exactly 100 years before A clipper ship, the Elizabeth Dane, was offshore in thick fog and they saw a light on the shore and headed for it, thinking it was a safe dock, but instead it was camp fire light on the beach and the ship was wrecked on the rocks out by Spivey Point. At midnight on the anniversary of the wreck the fog returns and so does the dead crew , looking for who lit the fire on the beach, the fire just like theirs, wooo! It’s a nice scene and apart from a couple of important details it summarises the film
At midnight the old church bell tolls out the time. In the church John Carpenter is moonlighting as a workman and he finishes up then he tells the priest Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) that he’ll be back the following day. It took years for me to notice that little cameo part but I wasn’t very familiar with what Carpenter looked like when I first saw it on VHS. Next time I’m going to see if I can spot Debra Hill, his co-writer and producer without their commentary. .
Midnight is the signal for things around town to just go crazy. Lights and TV and radios come on by themselves, objects vibrate petrol pumps start pumping by themselves, car alarms go off and dogs bark wildly at nothing. In the Church it some masonry fell loose revealing a cavity in which Malone finds a journal written by his ancestor, one of the town’s founders
Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) owns and operates the town’s only radio station on her own from a lighthouse on a cliff overlooking the whole Antonio Bay area. She gets a call from the local weatherman, Dan O’Bannon (Charles Cyphers) who asks her to alert a fishing trawler called the Sea Grass about a fog bank heading their way.
Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) is driving down the road in his truck when he sees a woman (Jamie Lee Curtis) hitch-hiking and he picks her up. As they drive along the midnight craziness hits his truck which stops and all the windows break.
Out at sea on the Sea Grass the three fishermen are getting drunk when they hear Stevie’s warning on the radio and decide it’s about time they went ashore anyway. At first they don’t see any fog then it comes at them fast. Two of the men go up on deck and they see a huge three-masted sailing ship right to them mostly obscured by the thick glowing fog. A group of figures appear on the deck of the Sea Grass mostly in shadow but backlit from below by the glowing fog but their boat hooks and swords are easy to see.They slaughter the two fisherman and then another spectral figure kills the third man Dick Baxter in the control room.
Nick and his hitch-hiker are in Nick’s bed, recovering from the broken windows. The hitch-hiker introduces herself as Elizabeth Solley, a rich girl who has decided to slut across America. There’s violent knocking on the door and Nick goes to answer it. We can see the glowing fog out of the windows and it really creepy and it is probably a ghost with a hook at the door but then the clock strikes one o’clock and the ghost and fog disappear just as Nick opens the door.
Next day Stevie’s young son Andy is out on the rocks by the sea with his fishing rod. He sees a large gold coin in the water just where the tide breaks and bends to pick it up but its is gone and in its place is a lump of driftwood. He picks up and sees carved into it the letters DANE, obviously a piece of the Elizabeth Dane that Mr Machen told them about the night before. He takes it back home and shows it to his mother. Andy wants to go back to beach to see if he if he can find the coin, but Stevie has to leave for work and Mrs Kobritz is coming to take care of Andy.
Mrs Williams (Janet Leigh) is chair of the organising committee for the town’s centenary celebrations with her snarky assistant Sandy (Nancy Kyes). She is also the wife of the fishermen on the Sea Grass and she’s worried that he isn’t back. Nick is also worried about not hearing from the Sea Grass, He would have been with them on the ship if he didn’t have something else to do. He goes down to the dock with Elizabeth. From this point just assume that if Nick goes anywhere Elizabeth will be with him.
At the dock Nick finds out harbour patrol have spotted the Sea Grass adrift and they are going out to check on what happened. Nick (and Elizabeth) go with them. The find the ship is a mess. It is dry on deck but the engine is flooded and the ship looks like it has been underwater. They also find Dick Baxter’s corpse
Mrs Williams and Sandy go to the church to check if Father Malone will giving a benediction at the centenary celebrations. Malone has been up all night reading the journal and drinking. He tells the women what has found out. The six men who founded Antonio Bay conspired to wreck the Elizabeth Dane, killing everyone on board and stealing their gold. He says that they are cursed and they are celebrating murderers. Mrs Williams is unmoved and merely satisfied to cross Malone off her list of things to organise for the centenary night.
Stevie gets up to the lighthouse and the scenery is spectacular and I am jealous of anyone who lives and works in that amazing place. She has that bit of driftwood that Andy found and sets it down next to a tape recorder playing station idents. She turns away for second and water starts leaking out of the wood into the tape recorder which goes crazy and then spooky voice can be heard “Something that one lives with like an albatross round the neck. No, more like a millstone. A plumbing stone, by God! Damn them all!”
As night returns so does the fog. It is surprising how much atmosphere can be created with bit of mist and couple of lamps. I really liked the part where Stevie uses the radio to beg for someone to save Andy from the fog and uses her viewpoint to let people about the best routes for avoiding it.
At the time this came out it seemed tame and a bit old-fashioned. Many scenes were added under pressure from the studio to try to appeal to the then current taste for gore but Carpenter himself was unhappy with the first cut and he too added in several scenes. I do really enjoy this film and the climax has good deal of angst and tension