Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Ward

I hesitated before watching The Ward (2010), John Carpenter's first theatrical film in nine years. Carpenter's one of my favorite directors; in fact, he was one of the first to get me interested in the idea of filmmaking as something more than pointing a camera and pressing record. However, the reviews weren't stellar (not really a new thing for him), and the pinball release of the movie, being bounced around from one date to another before going straight to on-demand and DVD, didn't inspire much confidence.

Having seen it now, I can say it's OK. Carpenter demonstrates his expected flourish, style, and craftsmanship, but in the end, for a comeback picture, it's underwhelming. The only thing that distinguishes this from some other straight-to-cable pictures is the Carpenter name.

In 1966, amnesic Kristen (Amber Heard) is incarcerated in an insane asylum after burning down a house. Deemed a lost cause, she's put under the care of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris). There are four other girls on the ward: artistic Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca, put in glasses and a ponytail so we know she's supposed to be the nerd), bitchy Sara (Danielle Panabaker), kooky Emily (Mamie Gummer), and child-like Zoey (Laura-Leigh). But there is a greater threat than the ominous doctor and his domineering staff. The ghost of a former patient is targeting the girls, killing them one-by-one, and Kristen realizes she'll have to escape if she's to survive.

Carpenter has directed some fairly large-scaled projects, such as Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, but The Ward has a stripped-down, back-to-basics approach. It's kept mostly on one location with a small cast, and it does not too many elaborate special effects. Carpenter has dabbled in satire, dark humor, and irony before, but his strategy here is to play things straight.

With cinematographer Yaron Orbach and production designer Paul Peters, Carpenter imbues them film with a certain elegance. When so much of the horror genre today is dominated by found footage movies are that look cheap and amateurish (by design), The Ward is in a whole different class. The period details though sparse effectively convey a time decades past, a time when attitudes and understanding of mental illness were shall we say less enlightened. The hospital is an imposing, creepy location, and the movie gets good mileage out of it. The camera at times feels like a character as Carpenter creeps it through the empty, twisting corridors, and the effect is eerie. Early on in the film, we get a sense that there could be anything waiting just around the corner, that someone is always watching you, and the effect is paranoid and claustrophobic.

There are also a number of effective shock moments. While not especially gory or bloody, the film has some intense moments of violence, particularly one scene where the ghost has one of the girls tied down and jams an orbitoclast through her eye; it's quite the sadistic kill that Carpenter suggests more than shows: the tip of the metal point, the scream, the closeup on the girl's terrified face as she begs for her life, the restraints on her wrists, the extreme view of the eyeball as the metal is plunged in (bloodlessly but with a sickening, twisting sound).

Another death scene isn't as effective. A girl gets tied up and strapped into the electroshock therapy machine, and the ghost burns her to death. The scene drags on too long, and its impact is lessened by it. Also, the ghost herself isn't very scary; she's prone to reaching out a decayed hand from the shadows to snatch her unwary victims, and Carpenter avoids placing her front and center, keeping her confined to the edges, but in terms of look and presentation, nothing really makes her unique from the many other ghosts we've seen on film in the last few years.

That's really the fundamental flaw of the picture: the story is entirely generic. Even the out-of-left-field twist in the climax, a twist that radically rewrites the logic of everything that came before it, is predictable if you've seen the likes of Identity or Shutter Island. It's not a surprise-you're-dead ending; rather, it's a surprise-you're-crazy ending, and instead of building a climax that knocks you off your socks (remember Michael Myers pursuing Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween or Kurt Russell's final confrontation with the shape-shifting alien in The Thing?), The Ward becomes bogged down explaining the truth, flashing back to show how what we previously saw happening wasn't what was actually happening (which is cheating).

The Ward is entirely watchable. Those desperate for new John Carpenter material will be satisfied to know he still has the tools of a top-of-the-line filmmaker and master of the genre to elevate the material, but he's hampered by a run-of-the-mill script that offers no surprises. I wonder why this is the story he chose to come out of retirement to tell, but I'm glad he's back and hopeful for the next project, whatever that might be.

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