"The Fog" is a vaporous new bogey-man exercise from John Carpenter, whose little horror thriller "Halloween" was overrated into the luckiest box-office sensation of 1978.

Already overspecialized and banal at the age of 31, Carpenter is a success story that confirms the impression that Hollywood's talent pool continues to dip artificially low. If Carpenter's minimalist scare stuff can clean up, the market is wide open.

"The Fog" has more pictorial distinction and control than "Halloween" (perhaps reflecting a modest budget increase), and Carpenter needs all he can get to maximize the atmospheric illusion created by his studied, lingering approach to picturesque apprehension while minimizing the shallowness of his narrative elements.

Carpenter sets an eerily expectant mood with a prologue in which John Houseman, in splendid oratorical form, appears as a bearded old salt transfixing a party of children with a campfire ghost story. The local legend he talks about -- a phantom ship that emerges from the fog to menace the community of Antonio Bay after the stroke of midnight -- is destined to be acted out in the course of the movie.

Unfortunately, Carpenter's depiction of this myth never really improves on Houseman's statement of it. An acceptable scene-setter, Carpenter reveals glaring inadequacies as a storyteller.

Mysterious things begin to happen around Antonio Bay in anticipation of the phantom ship and its crew of stalking, fog-shrouded stabbers. The occurrences are similar to the strange disruptions caused by the UFOs in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." At the same time most of the potential victims, otherwise known as the leading characters, are being introduced, and the acquaintance doesn't extend much beyond these fleeting introductions. Indeed, the supernatural menaces seem to have more substance than the threatened human beings we're expected to identify with.

In retrospect one realizes that Carpenter was dividing his forces ineffectively at an early stage, anticipating the diffuse arrangement of the climactic thrills. Adrienne Barbeau, sort of the heroine by default, does the solitary "Wait Until Dark" number while playing hide-and-seek with intruders at her isolated lighthouse radio station, while the other actors do a communal besieged number inside a church sanctuary under attack by a second group. Far from enhancing suspense, this cross-cutting creates redundancies and awkward time lapses.

Carpenter persists in violating the boundaries between supernatural and merely mysterious phenomena. The marauders who can conjure up an unnatural fog and emerge from it with lethal suddenness insist on being ridiculously visible at one point yet poky at another, because Carpenter doesn't want a particular set of characters knocked off.Similarly, a corpse is allowed to come back to life briefly in order to fake a preposterous scare and deliver a superfluous message.

Moreover, Carpenter places the menaces under inexplicably severe constraints: They can only threaten between midnight and one, and they'll be satisfied with a finite number of victims. For a while it appears that they've lost count, a possibility more amusing than the anticlimactic act of catchup that concludes the film. And Carpenter's special-effects fog banks are not impressive as either immediate or metaphoric heralds of terror.

The depiction of the killings is swift and relatively discreet. "The Fog" is far from a feast for moviegoing sadists. Some of the coastal exteriors, shot in the Point Reyes area of Marin County, are a scenic feast, enriched by deeply filtered color, which adds a surreal beauty to naturally breathtaking vistas.

Carpenter's apparent fixation on long-faced raspy-voiced, draggy heroines -- Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween" and Nancy Loomis in "Assault on Precinct 13," both returning for superfluous duty in "The Fog" -- even seems to box in Adrienne Barbeau, whose contours naturally suggest a welcome breakout. But Carpenter isn't lively enough to release a comic sexiness in his own harem of elongated baritone sirens.

Indeed, his style is so solemn and mellowed-out in comparison with most of the younger American directors who've shown a flair for horror -- Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, George Romero, William Friedkin -- that its appeal remains the most mysterious aspect of a Carpenter mystery.

Perhaps it's another indication of the general educational breakdown: Carpenter may be the horror master for a generation of slow readers.