CULT DIRECTORS experience the most sweetly agonizing of film successes. A guerrilla band of obstinate loyalists memorizes their work frame by frame and considers their skills immortal, but the general public is coldly oblivious to their existence. Film journals devote dense pages to their careers, film festivals tantalize them with retrospectives, but film studios and the people who run them are politely disdainful of their work. "It's a strange place," says John Carpenter, who knows.

John Carpenter first realized he was a cult director when a total stranger walked up to him at the Warner Bros. commissary, told him one of his films was breaking records in England, and walked away. He realized it again when he screened his two obscure features, "Dark Star," a scuffy science-fiction spoof that prefigured "Alien," and "Assult on Precinct 13," an urban Western that was the sensation of the London Film Festival in 1977, for the powers that be in Hollywood.

"I showed them to everybody in town and they said, "Sure kid, come back when you make a real movie,'" says Carpenter, a personable, articulate man of 32 whose neatly trimmed long hair and droopy mustache give him the look of a well-groomed Genghis Khan. "Often people didn't really see the movie. They'd base their opinions on things they'd heard. Because I'm not Neil Simon, because my style is different, quirky, they'd think, "This is not legitimate, this is just a kid.'

"Those years were very hard. No one was getting what I was trying to do. It was terribly frustrating, depressing. I felt inadequate, I felt like a failure. I'd been making films since I was 8 years old. If I committed to one thing 100 percent as a person, it was cinema, and I was starting to think, 'I can't do this.' I had some grim times."

In 1978, to universal surprise, especially his own, Carpenter broke the pattern. He was transmogrified from a cult figure to the man who made "Halloween," the nasty story of a predatory maniac who runs amok amid the falling leaves of an unsuspecting Midwestern town. It cost a piddling $300,00 but took in an unheard-of $50 million and more at the box office -- prompting the New York Times to call it the most successful independent motion picture ever made. In an industry where the dollar is still almighty, John Carpenter had arrived in style.

Ascendancy in the film business, however, is not a by-the-numbers progression. It is more like a series of Chinese puzzle boxes: Escape one and another envelopes you. So despite this startling triumph, Carpenter soon realized he was "still not thought of as a top director. I wasn't offered Robert De Niro's next film, I was offered more exploitation." Now convinced he was capable of handling shock material, studios wanted him to do nothing but. He said no. "I didn't want to end up parodying myself, making the same movie over and over again." Instead he decided to take a risk and direct "The Fog," which opens in Washington in February ("Dark Star" returned on Friday.)

Even on the most basic level of logistics, "Halloween" and "The Fog" are disparate. Starting from a phone call from producer Irwin Yablans suggesting a film about "some crazy guy who stalks babysitters," "Halloween" became, says its director, the easiest, quickest, simplest movie I've ever done."

Yablans raised the $300,000 -- a tiny amount by Hollywood standards -- from independent investors. The film was written in eight days, shot in 20, edited in a month. Carpenter's experience, including six years at the University of Southern California, where he took so few non-cinema courses he never got a degree, kept expenses minimal: "I know what's b.s. and what goes on the screen." His biggest problem on the made-in-L.A. film was framing the palm trees out of his shots.

The success of "Halloween" linked Carpenter in the public mind with other directors who have made films lucrative and frightening, people like Tobe Hooper of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and George Romero, responsible for both "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead." It helped him get actors of the caliber of John Houseman and Janet Leigh for "The Fog, thought he didn't forsake Leigh's daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, the star of "Halloween" and a lead in "Fog."

Yet for all of that, "The Fog" turned out to be a film on which Carpenter worked "harder than I've ever worked on anything. I've never done so many setups, I've never shot so much footage, three times what I usually do, but the sytle of this film demanded it."

It is in this area of style that the two projects really differ. In "Halloween" Carpenter was trying to duplicate the sudden shock effects of a haunted house, but in "The Fog" he had another model in mind: the high-style gothic menance of writers like H. P. Lovecraft, known as the Rhode Island Recluse, and filmmakers like director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, who in the 1940s turned out a group of films on the order of "Cat People" and "I Walked With a Zombie," whose horror was deliciously implicit rather than obtrusively explicit. "The Fog," which tells of a ship of leprous ghosts come back to wreak vengeance on the descendants of those who caused their deaths 100 years before, was to be very much in this mold.

"This is a fantasy from the word go, I can't emphasize that enough," Carpenter says. "It's ghosts, you see ghosts rise up from the deep depths of the water. It's one illusion from beginning to end, with no basis in reality, nothing for the audience to hook onto."

So if "Halloween" was a ruthless exercise in fright that grabbed one by the throat and virtually coerced belief, "The Fog" is nowhere near as insistent. While Carpenter does hedge his bets somewhat, bowing to the modern taste for sensation by including scenes that are eye-popping both literally and figuratively, the over-all tone of "The Fog" is eerie and atmospheric rather than relentless, and that, its director knows, represents a gamble.

"It's not as frightening as "Halloween,' it's not supposed to be," he says, bothered by the comparison he knows is inevitable. "It's such a risk, I don't know if people will buy it or not. If they don't they'll laugh at it. They'll say, 'What is this?' What can I do? I'm not going to do 'Halloween' again. There's an old phrase, 'f---'em if they can't take a joke.'"

If Carpenter feels a bit worried, Avco Embassy, the film's Distributor, does not. Last year Avco's most successful film was a horror item called "Phantasm." This year the company is hoping for similar results from "The Fog" and is launching the most extensive and costly advertising campaign in its history -- $3 million -- employing everything from skywriting to fog machines in theater lobbies to help the film along.

"We've gone out on the line on this one," Avco's general sales manager Herb Robinson told Daily Variety. "I don't care if it rains every day. If the picture doesn't go, we have no excuses."

All this is likely to increase Carpenter's identification with the horror field, a development he is ambivalent about. "I'm not running away from it, I love having people on the edge of their seats," he says. "And it could be worse. They could be saying; 'This guy is terrible.' But what I care about isn't horror. Its films that are cinematic, entertaining; films that make you feel something. Emtions, that's the whole ball game. For me films aren't intellectual, they shouldn't deliver messages or portray reality, they're dreams and fantasies in themselves."

Even if "The Fog" does not perform up to expectations, Carpenter is protected. Because the filming cost only $1 million, it made a profit via foreign sales and domestic guarantees before it appeared on a single screen, and the director has three more projects already lined up: A secret, still untitled film he is now beginning; an old-fashioned Western called "El Diablo," and a possible remake of the 1950s science-fiction classic, "The Thing."

And in a more basic sense Carpenter is protected because he knows how the system works. While on one hand he says, "It's scary. You bomb once and there you go"; on the other he knows, "I'm going to fail big one day, I've got to. The career of every director in Hollywood has gone up and down for no rhyme or reason."

Carpenter thought The Bomb had fallen after he directed the TV movie "Elvis!" "I was watching it with some friends and I had to leave the room, I felt it was the most godawful thing I'd ever done," he remembers. "Driving home I thought, I'm going to have to find myself another profession." Yet on the next morning he was blitzed by congratulatory phone calls and "Elvis!" ended up outperforming "Gone With the Wind" in the ratings. "There are no rules to this game, John Carpenter says with an even smile, "and it takes a long time to adjust."