In search of ...

'The Vortex Phenomena' unearths the unknown

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Cloudy with a chance of revenge: The Fog (1980)

arts@sfbg.com

FILM In the 1970s conspiracy-theory culture flourished as never before, an unsurprising development considering the disillusioned malaise that set in after the turbulence of the 1960s and Watergate. In addition to innumerable theories about the "truth" behind JFK's death (and later Elvis'), there was suddenly a widespread fascination with such questionable phenomena as the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, Bigfoot, extra-sensory perception, the "Amityville Horror," and so forth. Naturally this interest rapidly spread from cheap paperbacks to television and drive-in screens.

Such obsessions occasionally sparked upscale treatment (i.e. 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but were more often exploited by filmmakers working on the trashier side of the audiovisual entertainment spectrum. Ergo the surfeit of cinematic dumpster-diving that comprises the Vortex's June series "The Vortex Phenomena," whose four Thursday evenings are dedicated to exploring the unknown in movies that themselves are largely pretty dang unknown.

There are at least a couple exceptions — and interestingly they're the ones least relevant to the theme, being traditional supernatural horror. Most prominent is John Carpenter's 1980 The Fog, his entry into the relative big time after indie Halloween basically invented slasherdom two years prior. Depicting murderous mariner ghosts who attack a coastal town on its centennial, The Fog is an atmospheric classic of sorts that almost became a career-ending bomb. Assembling a rough cut, Carpenter thought the results so flat he did extensive reshoots that ultimately constituted about a third of the final, successful version. The film still has a structural problem, though: we know early on that the ghoulies want to claim six lives, and since right off the bat they take three, there's no huge sense of peril for the cluttered cast (including Jamie Lee Curtis, her Psycho-shower-victim mom Janet Leigh, bodacious Adrienne Barbeau, and Hal Holbrook). Trivia note: it was partly shot in Point Reyes and Bolinas.

The other moderately well-known film in the Vortex series is The Dunwich Horror, a striking 1970 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation with erstwhile Gidget and all-around perky girl Sandra Dee as a graduate student unknowingly recruited for demonic sacrifice by a superbly creepy Dean Stockwell. Otherwise, "Phenomenon" features movies even the fairly learned horror fan has probably never heard of — though if you were of viewing age in the 1970s you might have actually seen (and forgotten) a couple of them on network TV.

A pilot for an unproduced series, 1973's Baffled! features Leonard Nimoy in an unusually debonair role as a racecar driver who begins experiencing psychic visions of future mayhem (sometimes, inconveniently, when he's behind the wheel). They draw him to England, where a visiting movie star (Vera Miles, another veteran of 1960's Psycho) finds her 12-year-old daughter going through an uber-bratty phase possibly heightened by demonic possession. The slick mix of comedy-mystery and horror doesn't quite work, but Star Trek aficionados will enjoy the inexplicable wrongness of seeing Nimoy as a conventional suave action hero, saying things like "You're a great-lookin' chick!"

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