What is Setting?
Setting consists of three elements: places, props, and times. Visually, it’s the where, when, and what of a story, and it’s one of the most powerful aspects of mise-en-scene.
The human being is all-important in the theatre. The drama on the screen can exist without actors. A banging door, a leaf in the wind, waves beating on the shore can heighten the dramatic effect. Some film masterpieces use man only as an accessory, like an extra, or in counterpoint to nature, which is the true leading character.—Andre Bazin
In John Carpenter’s 1980 campfire classic, The Fog, setting stands out as his single most salient technique. From the titular Fog itself to the iconic lighthouse that DJ Stevie Wayne uses to “keep watching the fog,” places repeatedly trump people in terms of narrative importance. The story’s timing—the eve of Antonio Bay’s centennial—and its general location—the Pacific Northeast—help reinforce the film’s postcolonnial subtext, and the plot’s development charts a course progressively backwards to the oldest buildings in town; the place most centrally connected to the town’s historical atrocity.
Hollywood v. California
Shooting was split between studio work in Hollywood—for the interiors—and locations scattered around Marin County California—for the bay, lighthouse, babysitter’s house, and church. This had some technical ramifications. For instance, lighting in the interiors is tightly controlled chiaroscuro, whereas lighting on location is largely natural and diffuse. The only genuinely bright stretch in the film is the gorgeous location photgraphy of Stevie Wayne driving down Sir Frances Drake Highway to work, but when she gets there the extraordinary size and shape of the bluff that holds the lighthouse carries its own sun-drenched menace. In general, for the interiors Carpenter used classic Lewton-inspired, lighting/sound based scares, but on location the power of the settings themselves carried all the creepy implications required.
“I am the thief and God’s temple is the tomb of gold.”—Grandfather Malone
The Fog tells the story of Antonio Bay—a sleepy New England town with skeleton pirates in its closet. Back in the 19th century, the future city fathers purposely drove a shipful of lepers against the rocks and plundered its wealthy Captain Blake’s treasure to build the church and establish the town. On the eve of the town’s centennial a local priest—a descendant of one of the six orignal conspirators—finds his grandfather’s journal describing the whole sordid tale. Incensed by the coming celebration and the unearthing of the damning journal, Blake and his revolting troop of leporous zombie ghosts return to Antonio Bay in the same “unearthly fog” that gave the town’s fathers cover for their dastardly deed so many years ago. Now its up to local DJ Stevie Wayne and a ragtag band of misfits and misanthropes to save the town and set things right.
“This town should be proud of its past.”—Kathy Williams
The first aspect of setting that orients The Fog‘s narrative is the township of Antonio Bay itself. Over at dvdtown, John Puccio comments that, “[a] minor concern is that the film can never make up its mind who its lead character is,” but, it’s Antonio Bay itself—introduced during the credits in a montage of eerily unpopulated compositions that recall the famous ending of Carpenter’s previous film Halloween—that’s actually the movie’s true protagonist, and its journey from ignominy to redemption is the film’s true story.
Characters like Father Malone, DJ Stevie, and local personality Kathy Williams are all cardboard cut-outs that have little psychological depth, but the inclusion of so many of them—at least ten memorable, quirky, and unique stereotypes—turns the town itself into a fully developed personage, with all the internal confict and contradiction of an ambiguously drawn, “realistic” human character.
The credit sequence’s faux-Antonioniness is another device that puts the visual weight on the setting’s back. Showing off Dean Cundey’s excellent cinematography, Carpenter takes us on a tour through Antonio Bay’s many streets and shops. Some spots will be revisited later, some will not, but with their uncanny emptiness and aesthetic prowess, the shots stand out and demand explanation. At the end of Halloween he used a similar device to show us everywhere The Shape (Michael Myers) wasn’t, but in The Fog it feels more like he’s showing us the town itself—and the evil already lurking beneath the surface. This is partly because the montage comes at the beginning of the plot and partly because it’s the places’ physicality that produces the terror. This sequence is filled with setting-scares:
- ringing pay phones,
- rattling bottles,
- a swinging sign,
- the gas nozzle/car lift,
- car alarms,
- a TV powers up,
- and a moving chair.
These first frights are not killer monsters (costume/makeup) or shadowy corners (lighting) or even loud noises offscreen (sound); they’re explicitly physical—actual everyday parts of the setting acting in strange ways. The opening credit sequence underlines the fact that the town of Antonio Bay is cursed—its residents just happen to live there.
“My grandfather hid his sins in the walls.”—Father Malone
In the beginning, two slow, dramatic, on-location tilts—one upwards, one downwards—follow the studio-bound “ghost-story” prologue, introducing the two settings at war for Antonio Bay’s soul. The first is the bay—which is represented inland by the Fog and which is returned to over and over again as an ominous visual motif that reminds us from where the danger first emerged. The second is the local church, which stands as the symbolic heart of the town—its first official building after moving on up the municipal hierarchy from settlement to township. The church is Antonio Bay both as it was (greedy, guilty—the stolen gold and shadows) and as it is (ignorant, innocent—Father Malone).
The story of The Fog is the slow train from sea to church, and the human figures that act it out are simply vehicles for the bay’s reclamation of its property. Presumably Blake won’t even be able to use the gold he takes back, but I guess the Fog just feels like the gold belongs at the bottom of the ocean with the rest of the wreck of the Elizabeth Dane!
The church forms the film’s beginning and end, and the setting gives the movie formal symmetry. Father Malone finds the journal in the church’s wall, so the ignition of the entire plot’s engine is a part of the setting, and since he finds the gold that appeases Blake’s ghost in that same wall, the plot’s resolution is also tucked away in its most important set. Imagine some alternative resolutions: killing Blake, publicly acknowledging the atrocity, or even the death of all the characters—none have the geometrical poetry of The Fog‘s setting-based solution.
Also, visually the church provides a Gothic counterpoint to the plastic fantastic American nightmare that is much of Antonio Bay, although its interior is as artificial as the rest of the movie’s studio work.
Our Cross to Bear
The cross that Malone gives to Blake to give his spirit rest deserves a little closer scrutiny. The cross is the story’s most important prop, and it’s a motif that runs throughout the entire film. There are crosses on the wall of the church in the beginning and the hospital in the middle. There are three shots of lone telephone poles that look like religious crosses, and there’s an enormous Celtic Cross on the road outside of town. This running visual pattern culminates in the enormous gold cross that solves the story. Once again, setting takes a formative role in the plot.
♫♪I wanna marry a lighthouse keeper…♪♫
The lighthouse that serves as DJ Stevie Wayne’s base of operations is a famous one from Point Reyes, California. In the early 19th century the area was a hotbed of shipwrecks, and the lighthouse was built in 1852 to help cut back on the number of accidents. Fog was problematic for the lighthouse back then too, and keeping the light lit and visible was a full time job. So this setting was not only visually evocative, it was meta-narratively appropriate.
The lighthouse has an important formal function in the film as well; it isolates DJ Stevie. By giving her a job that couldn’t be shirked, the best seats in town for lookout duty, and the ability to communicate one-way with the other characters, Carpenter effectively locks her in a room. She’s forced to listen impotently to the attack that could claim her child’s life, she’s on a fishing hook hanging out over the bay as a perfect target for the Fog, and in the end she’s driven onto the lighthouse’s extremely small roof by the zombie ghosts.
Together with the church, the lighthouse stands as the oldest physical reminder of the town father’s crimes. Although the false fire that sent Blake’s ship off course was lit “on shore” his ship crashed “on the rocks off Spivey Point.” Later the lighthouse was built on Spivey Point. Ghost attacks move from: the streets of Antonio Bay to the road outside of town to ships in the bay to a house on the beach to the lighthouse to the church. So, as you can see, the plot leads the ghosts on a journey from more modern, less culpable parts of town (studio sets), to places progressively more stained with innocent leprous blood (real locations.)
The Auteur of “The Place”
Carpenter has had a career long prediliction for movies heavy on setting. To one extent or another, at least ten of his films deal with sieged locations, and its the physicality of these different places that twist and tweak his themes. Whether its the racially charged Police Station of Assault on Precinct 13 (brotherhood) or the ice cold Antarctic lab from The Thing (paranoia), his settings give him unique perspectives on his archetypal—and largely interchangeable—stories.
Next to They Live, which—for all its positive qualities—does not work as well as this film, The Fog is the most extreme example of his recurring siege-theme, and as such it’s also the film where he most fully exploits the full range of the setting’s potential effects. The whole town of Antonio Bay is besieged, and it succeeds in creating a much more palpable sense of reality than Haddonfield, IL (Halloween) or the Los Angeles of Prince of Darkness. Like the ghostly force that rattles bottles, swings signs, and turns on car alarms, The Fog‘s narrative is an invisible force that animates the settings that form its corpus, and it’s another terrifying example of John Carpenter’s subordination of the will of man to the will of nature.