Friday, July 15, 2011

Film Review: THE WARD (2011, John Carpenter)

Stars: 3.2 of 5.
Running Time: 88 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Amber Heard (ZOMBIELAND, DRIVE ANGRY 3D), Jared Harris (NATURAL BORN KILLERS, NAJDA), Mamie Gummer (JOHN ADAMS, HEARTBURN), Danielle Panabaker (FRIDAY THE 13TH reboot, THE CRAZIES remake), Lyndsy Fonseca (HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, BOSTON PUBLIC), Mika Boorem (HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, ALONG CAME A SPIDER). Music by Mark Kilian (TSOTSI, BONE DADDY). Cinematography by Yaron Orbach (THE TEN, PLEASE GIVE). Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (LONG DISTANCE).
Tag-line: "Only Sanity Can Keep You Alive."
Best one-liner: I don't know, it's not really that kind of movie.

I'll take a break from the countdown to share my thoughts on Carpy's latest effort. I saw it two nights ago, in Times Square, in the only New York theater showing it, on the penultimate day of a week-long, mere seven-screening run. This screening was attended by myself and three other people, one of whom was a classic "frequent flier" who obviously had stumbled into the theater after a long day spent at the multiplex (at the cost of a single ticket). The others were, I assume, Carpenter die-hards, but one never does know about these things. I don't know if the poor attendance is due to bad marketing, or the fact that it's on-demand concurrently with the modest theatrical run (and with the DVD soon on the way), but it all sort of depresses me.
Now, THE WARD is not a bad movie; in fact, it's a pretty good one, all things considered. Sure, it's third-tier Carpy, but it's almost as good as VAMPIRES, and probably at the same level as GHOSTS OF MARS, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, and CIGARETTE BURNS, all of which grew in stature with the passage of time. In fact, that's one of the best things about Carpy's films- you can never really judge them in the year they came out; they almost all seem to improve with age, even MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN. Yes, even that.

I'll begin with the bad so we can end with the good. The script, by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, is often boneheaded, generic, and possessing a finale that is...well, I'll get to it in due time. The banter for the female mental patients ("Sorry, I don't converse with loonies," "If I were you I'd watch out, new girl!") sounds like it was written by a couple of dweeby guys who've played so many poorly-plotted video games and watched so much third-rate television that the half-baked ramblings of female clichés in Sci-Fi original movies begin to sound to them like poetry. This ties into larger theories I've expressed about the clandestine dumbing-down of society by inundating us with bottom-of-the-barrel programming– if you surround yourself with soulless, counterfeit "humanity," pretty soon you're going to be writing stories about soulless, counterfeit humanity, and because it's invaded your mind like a cliché of a cliché, you're going to think it's naturalistic; perhaps even poignant. Then there's a twist ending which cashes in on a craze which was just as hackneyed a decade ago as it is now– a twist for twist's sake, the sort of conclusion that elicits a collective groan, a shifting of seats, a rolling of eyes, and the desperate thought that If only they'd take back that dumb twist, this could be a much better movie!...but, alas, they can't take it back.
Also, there's a little unnecessary CGI (not a lot, but it becomes all the more maddening because it doesn't really serve a purpose), and the film employs a multitude of modern "flash-scares" (Carpy used them in CIGARETTE BURNS, for example), which are markedly different from his tried and true "jump scares" (like in HALLOWEEN, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, THE THING, etc.) in that they're extremely short, abrupt, loud, and not altogether successful. I suppose that a "flash-scare" is sort of like a mad-ape, homerun swing– but without the necessary follow-through.

But onto the good:
The opening makes ya tingle inside– low, ominous corridor shots like in THE THING,

and then WOOOSH!– that good old Albertus font that Carpy loves so much announces that we're watching:

It's just nice to see that on the screen again, ten years after GHOSTS OF MARS. I'd have given a standing ovation, but there were only four people in the theater, and I didn't want to out-crazy the frequent flier.

It's largely up to Amber Heard to carry the movie, and while it's nowhere near being a "genius horror-heroine performance" like Angela Bettis in MAY or Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY'S BABY or Sissy Spacek in CARRIE, I was still impressed by her ability to shoulder the burden through the dry stretches.

Jared Harris is solid, as usual, as a well-meaning (...or is he?) staff doctor, and the rest of the girls are serviceable as well, despite not quite looking era-appropriate (it's a 60's period piece).
The soundtrack, by Mark Kilian, ain't bad. It's sort of Danny Elfman-children chanting-by-way-of-Ennio Morricone, and it lends a ghostly vibe to the film that's quite effective, for the most part. And there are a few "thump-thump... thump-thump..." classic Carpenter bass riffs (think THE THING) which Carpy admitted to tapping out personally.
Yaron Orbach's cinematography isn't as good as Gary Kibbe's (and it goes without saying that it's not as good as Dean Cundey's), but it's still pretty evocative, and manages to inject a sense of menace into a film which is illuminated by sunlight at least 60% of the time.

There's foreboding exteriors, some nice Greg Nicotero makeup (though to a certain extent it's marred by that unnecessary CGI!), eye trauma worthy of Fulci, a clip from Bert I. Gordon's TORMENTED, a random free-style "impromptu wacky girls dancing" scene (long live the 80's!), some real jolts, and some genuinely exciting setpieces.
In the end, I have to say (while not sounding like too much of an apologist) that Carpy did the best he could with the material. Despite a cookie-cutter, straight-to-video style script, he's made a movie that's often gripping, occasionally frightening, and always bearing a stamp of Carpenter craftsmanship, even if it can't always live up to the days of yore standards of Carpenter quality. It's not a classic, but it's still a new addition to the Carpy canon, and after all this time, by God, that's GREAT. Here's to Carpy's next one– I only hope I don't have to wait until 2021.

-Sean Gill


Brian Collins said...

I can't wait to see this. It's a shame to hear all the reviews say that the script is weak with a terrible twist, but even Carpenters worst movies are still pretty entertaining. Lets hope he's back to more full-time directing. I loved his Masters of Horror episodes.

J.D. said...

Very nice, honest assessment of JC's latest. I haven't seen it yet but it's just great to see him cranking out another film even if the script is crap. I see this film as JC testing the feature film waters again after several years. He was smart and made a small budgeted film under the radar so there isn't much at stake here. By all accounts from the press he's done, the experience of making THE WARD has reinvigorated his love of filmmaking again, which is probably the best thing to come away from this film.

Sean Gill said...


Even with a weak script and a terrible twist, it's still a fine time because of Carpenter's technique– but yes, here's hoping he makes this a fulltime comeback!


Thank you, sir! I couldn't agree more– and from what I've been reading in the last year or so, it looks like he's got enough tentative projects flying around that one of 'em will surely have to leap to the forefront, hopefully sooner rather than later.