Saw John Carpenter’s The Fog, which is one of those movies which becomes more and more mediocre the more you think about it. It certainly wasn’t horrible; the special effects with the fog flowing about were kind of nifty, and there were certainly suspenseful, slasher film moments. And lord knows it was better than Prince of Darkness. But that’s a pretty low bar.

The Fog is set in the small California fishing village of Antonio Bay. Over the course of the movie, we discover that the six founders of Antonio Bay murdered the members of a leper colony by luring their ship to its doom; they then recovered the gold of the leper’s wealthy leader and used it to build the town. Now, a hundred years later, the lepers have risen from the dead. Trailing fog and dressed, rather improbably, as ninja-pirates, they return to wreak revenge on those who did them wrong.

The Fog, in other words, is treading all over Stephen King territory, mining the buried evil beneath the calm surface of small-town life. The problem is that Carpenter isn’t willing to follow the logic through. Yes, the founders of Antonio Bay did a horrible thing. But none of the present members of the community are treated as anything but the salt-of-the-earth. The worst vice anyone seems to indulge in is drink, and this is treated as a venial sin — the notion, for example, that a pilot drinking while guiding his boat might be a bad idea is dismissed out of hand. In Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, the vampire embraces the town because it’s already a den of sin — adultery, jealousy, greed, despair, cruelty, mistrust. In The Fog, there’s none of that. Tom Atkins cheerfully declares to Jamie Lee Curtis that he is “weird,” but in fact he, and everyone else in the town, is placidly, boringly normal. The town’s celebration of it’s 100th year anniversary is carried out with deadpan earnestness; you keep waiting for there to be a satiric bite of some sort, but it never happens. The creatures of the Fog are bad, the townspeople are good. Any blurring of the boundaries happened long ago, and isn’t relevant today.

In the town-banning-unproblematically-together-against-evil meme, Carpenter seems to be taking his cues from Howard Hawks, one of his idols. (There’s even a direct reference to the famous moment in Hawks’ “The Thing” where one character gets on the radio and urges listeners to “keep watching the skies!” for alien invaders. In this case, Adrienne Barbeaux gets on the radio and tells her listeners to stay alert for the fog.) The problem is that, though he may love Hawks, it’s not clear that Carpenter actually shares his thematic preoccupations. Hawks actually, and apparently sincerely, disliked weirdos; pointy-headed intellectuals pissed him off — he believed in manly men banding together in harmony to fight the forces of evil. It’s hard to imagine Hawks suggesting that a group of good townspeople casually murdered a group of lepers.

In short, Carpenter doesn’t seem to have quite figured out what he wants to do. Is the fog a manifestation of the townspeople’s evil? Or is it an outside invader against which the townspeople band together, showing their spirit and essential goodness? Carpenter doesn’t know, and doesn’t even seem to have thought about it. As a result, the movie lacks both the bitter pathos of Stephen King’s best moments, where ordinary people embrace evil and destroy themselves. And it lacks the confidence of Hawks’ certainty of the line between good and evil. Instead, you’ve got a bunch of “weird” ordinary people who we’re supposed to admire and worry about, but who lack any of the depth that would make that possible. The fog the covers the town is neither exterior evil nor interior failing; it’s just Carpenter’s trickery, trying to conceal the fact that he doesn’t know what this movie is about, and doesn’t want to know.