As the Californian coastal town of Antonio Bay is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, paranormal activity begins to occur at the stroke of midnight. Town priest Father Malone is in his church when a piece of masonry falls from the wall, revealing a cavity containing an old journal, his grandfather's diary from a century ago. It reveals that in 1880, six of the founders of Antonio Bay (including Malone's grandfather) deliberately sank and plundered a clipper ship named the Elizabeth Dane. The ship was owned by Blake, a wealthy man with leprosy who wanted to establish a leper colony nearby. Gold from the ship was used to build Antonio Bay and its church.
Meanwhile, three fishermen are out at sea when a strange, glowing fog envelops their trawler. The fog brings with it the Elizabeth Dane, carrying the vengeful revenants of Blake and his crew who kill the fishermen. Meanwhile, town resident Nick Castle is driving home and picks up a young hitchhiker named Elizabeth Solley. As they drive towards town, all the truck's windows inexplicably shatter.
The following morning, local radio DJ Stevie Wayne is given a piece of driftwood by her son Andy; it is inscribed with the word "DANE", and Andy says he found it on the beach. Intrigued, Stevie takes it with her to the lighthouse where she broadcasts her radio show. She sets the wood down next to a tape player that is playing, but the wood inexplicably begins to seep water, causing the tape player to short out. A mysterious man's voice emerges from the tape player swearing revenge, and the words "6 must die" appear on the wood before it bursts into flame. Stevie quickly extinguishes the fire, but then sees that the wood once again reads "DANE" and the tape player begins working normally again.
After locating the missing trawler, Nick and Elizabeth find the corpse of Dick Baxter with his eyes gouged out. The other two fishermen are missing, one of whom is the husband of Kathy Williams, who is overseeing the town's centennial celebrations. While Elizabeth is alone in the autopsy room, Baxter's corpse rises from the autopsy table and approaches her. As Elizabeth screams, Nick and coroner Dr. Phibes rush back into the room where they see the corpse lifeless again on the floor, upon which it has carved the number 3. That evening, as the town's celebrations begin, local weatherman Dan calls Stevie at the radio station to tell her that another fog bank has appeared and is moving towards town. As they are talking, the fog gathers outside the weather station and Dan hears a knock at the door. He answers it and is slaughtered by the revenants as Stevie listens in horror. As Stevie proceeds with her radio show, the fog starts moving inland, disrupting the town's telephone and power lines. Using a back-up generator, Stevie begs her listeners to go to her house and save her son when she sees the fog closing in from her lighthouse vantage point. As the fog envelops Stevie's house, the revenants kill her son's babysitter, Mrs. Kobritz. They then pursue Andy, but Nick arrives just in time to rescue him.
Stevie advises everyone to head to the town's church. Once inside, Nick, Elizabeth, Andy, Kathy, her assistant Sandy, and Father Malone take refuge in a back room as the fog arrives outside. Inside the room, they locate a gold cross in the wall cavity which is made from the stolen gold. As the revenants begin their attack, Malone takes the gold cross out into the chapel. Knowing that they have returned to take six lives in lieu of the six original conspirators who led them to their deaths, Malone offers the gold and himself to Blake to spare the others. At the lighthouse, more revenants attack Stevie, trapping her on the roof. Inside the church, Blake seizes the gold cross, which begins to glow. Nick pulls Malone away from the cross seconds before it disappears in a blinding flash of light along with Blake and his crew. The revenants at the lighthouse also disappear, and the fog vanishes. Later that night, Malone is alone in the church pondering why Blake did not kill him and thus take six lives. The fog then reappears inside the church along with the revenants, and Blake decapitates Malone.
John Carpenter stated that the inspiration for the story was partly drawn from the British film The Trollenberg Terror (1958), which dealt with monsters hiding in the clouds. He has also said that he was inspired by a visit to Stonehenge with his co-writer/producer (and then-girlfriend), Debra Hill. While in England promoting Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter and Hill visited the site in the late afternoon one day and saw an eerie fog in the distance. In the DVD audio commentary for the film, Carpenter noted that the story of the deliberate wreckage of a ship and its subsequent plundering was based on an actual event that took place in the 19th century near Goleta, California (this event was portrayed more directly in the 1975 Tom Laughlin film, The Master Gunfighter). The premise also bears strong resemblances to the John Greenleaf Whittier poem The Wreck of the Palatine which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1867, about the wreck of the ship Princess Augusta in 1738, at Block Island, within Rhode Island.
The Fog was part of a two-picture deal with AVCO-Embassy, along with Escape from New York (1981), and was shot on a reported budget of $1 million. Although this was essentially a low-budget independent film, Carpenter chose to shoot in the anamorphic 2.35:1 format, which gave the film a grander look so it did not seem like a low-budget horror film. Filming took place from April 1979 to May 1979 at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, California (interior scenes) and on location at Point Reyes, California, Bolinas, California, Inverness, California, and the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Sierra Madre, California.
After viewing a rough cut of the film, Carpenter was dissatisfied with the results. Recalling the experience, Carpenter commented "It was terrible. I had a movie that didn't work, and I knew it in my heart". Carpenter subsequently added the prologue with Mr. Machen (John Houseman) telling ghost stories to fascinated children by a campfire (Houseman played a similar role in the opening of the 1981 film Ghost Story). Carpenter added several other new scenes and re-shot others in order to make the film more comprehensible, more frightening, and gorier. Carpenter and Debra Hill have said the necessity of a re-shoot became especially clear to them after they realized that The Fog would have to compete with horror films that had high gore content. Approximately one-third of the finished film is the newer footage, increasing the film's budget slightly to $1.1 million.
Cast as the female lead was Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter's then-wife, who had appeared in Carpenter's TV movie Someone's Watching Me! in 1978. This was her first feature film. Barbeau would subsequently appear in Carpenter's next film, Escape from New York (1981).
Tom Atkins, a friend of Barbeau's, was cast as Nick Castle. The Fog was Atkins' first appearance in a Carpenter film, though he would also go on to appear in Carpenter's next film, Escape from New York (1981), and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which was produced and scored by Carpenter.
Jamie Lee Curtis, who was the main star of Carpenter's 1978 hit Halloween, appeared as Elizabeth. Commenting on the role and on appearing in another of Carpenter's films, she said "That's what I love about John. He's letting me explore different aspects of myself. I'm spoiled rotten now. My next director is going to be almost a letdown."
Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, and Tom Atkins all went on to appear in the horror film Creepshow in 1982.
Besides the fact that many of the actors in The Fog also appeared in Halloween (and other later Carpenter films), several characters in The Fog are named after people that Carpenter had collaborated with on previous films.Dan O'Bannon is a screenwriter who worked with Carpenter on Dark Star (1974).
Nick Castle is the actor who played Michael Myers in Halloween (1978).
Tommy Wallace has worked with Carpenter as an editor, art designer, and sound designer on several of his films in the 1970s and 1980s.
Richard Kobritz, the producer of Carpenter's 1978 TV film Someone's Watching Me! inspired the name of the character Mrs. Kobritz.
Other references that are interwoven into the film include the name of the John Houseman character "Mr. Machen" (a reference to British horror fantasist Arthur Machen); a radio report that mentions Arkham Reef; and the town's coroner Dr. Phibes was named after the titular character of the horror films starring Vincent Price from the early 1970s.
In addition to the final $1.1 million production budget, Avco Embassy spent over $3 million solely on advertising which included TV spots, radio spots, print ads, and even the placement of fog machines (costing £350 each) in the lobbies of selected theaters where the film was showing. A further undisclosed amount was spent on 600 prints of the film, 540 of which were distributed to American cinemas. Originally, the film was set for release during the 1979 Christmas season, but Avco Embassy president Bob Rehme opted to wait until February 1980 when there would be less major box office competition from other films and more theater screens available. The film had a staggered release in various cities beginning February 1st before expanding to further locations later that month.
The film made $21.3 million in the United States and Canada.
Despite being a commercial success, the film initially received mixed reviews when it was released. In the years since its release, later reviews were more positive regarding the film. It later came to be considered, as Carpenter opined regarding his creation, "a minor horror classic" though he also stated it was not his favorite film due to re-shoots and low production values. This is one of the reasons he agreed to the 2005 remake. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 71% approval rating with an average rating of 6.2/10 based on 40 reviews. In his 1980 review, Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars, commenting, "This isn't a great movie but it does show great promise from Carpenter". In a 2002 review (for the DVD release of the film), Slant Magazine reviewer Ed Gonzalez gave the film 3.5 stars out of 4 and stated that "Carpenter's use of 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen is beyond legendary and his compositions evoke a town that may as well be the last remaining one on the face of the earth."
Chris Justice at Classic-Horror.com commented "The music is also classic Carpenter, and although the composer actually scrapped his original score and rewrote it to better match the film's vibe, viewers benefit greatly from his acute sense of rhythm, composition, and tone. His stark notes add another layer of complexity to a film that too often is forgotten. The editing is also brilliant; at 89 minutes, the film packs quite a punch and is worth every second."
Zombiemania: 80 Movies to Die For author Arnold T. Blumberg wrote that the film was "a very effective small scale chiller" and "an attempt to capture the essence of a typical spooky American folktale while simultaneously paying homage to the EC Comics of the 1950s and the then very recent Italian zombie influx." Slam Adams at House of Geekery commented "The Fog is an incredibly atmospheric horror flick that takes the technical expertise of Halloween and adds more obvious supernatural elements. Carpenter pick and chooses what to show and what not to show opting that more is less. It is impressive the way they seem to have complete control over the actual fog giving it an other-worldy, sentient feel."
In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll of over 100 authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films. The Fog placed at number 77 on their top 100 list.
A novelization of the movie, written by Dennis Etchison, was published by Bantam Books in January 1980. The novel clarifies the implication in the film that the six who must die were not random but in fact descendants of the six original conspirators.
The film has been released on various home video formats since the early 1980s, including video cassette and laserdisc. It was released on DVD in 2002 complete with extra features including two documentaries and an audio commentary by John Carpenter and Debra Hill as well as trailers and galleries. Scream Factory released the film on Blu-ray in 2013, which included the previous extra features as well as a new audio commentary by actors Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Atkins and production designer Tommy Lee Wallace, a new interview with Jamie Lee Curtis, and an episode of Horror's Hallowed Grounds which revisits the film's locations.
In 2005, the film was remade under the direction of Rupert Wainwright with a screenplay by Cooper Layne and starring Tom Welling and Maggie Grace. Though based on Carpenter and Hill's original screenplay, the remake was made more in the vein of a "teen horror film" and given a PG-13 rating (the original film was rated R). Green-lit by Revolution Studios with just eighteen pages of script written, the film was almost universally panned for its poor script and acting and has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 4%.