Friday, 21 January 2011

John Carpenter’s The Ward

2010
Dir. John Carpenter

After she sets fire to a house, troubled Kristen is incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. It isn’t long before she becomes acquainted with the other inmates and realises that all is not as it seems in the hospital. Odd occurrences are afoot and gradually the number of inmates begins to dwindle. Are the stern doctors and their experimental treatments to blame? Or is something more supernatural afoot? When she fails to convince the staff that someone, or something, stalks the corridors at night, Kristen decides to take matters into her own hands… Mild chills and a slew of shock/jump moments ensue.

John Carpenter, like many of his contemporaries (George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Wes Craven) experienced something of a freefall in the latter part of his career. Having created some of the most seminal, genre defining films so early on, Carpenter would eventually struggle to live up to the reputation he quickly cultivated for himself. His early filmography reads like a ‘greatest hits’ of genre cinema: Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, Escape from New York, Dark Star. Even when he wasn’t completely on top form, he was still making films other genre directors could only dream of: The Fog, They Live, In The Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China. Then something happened. Later films such as Escape from LA and Body Bags only looked set to ease us into the disappointment and eventual nadir of his career thus far: Vampires and Ghosts of Mars (actually a guilty pleasure of this writer’s. Sorry).


The good news for Carpenter fans is that while John Carpenter’s The Ward is certainly not the return to form we’ve been longing for, it actually ain’t half bad, and is at least a step in the right direction for the previously AWOL maverick. While Carpenter wasn’t responsible for writing the screenplay, or even scoring the film (as is his usual custom), he still injects enough atmosphere and competently maintained suspense into proceedings to at least give us a little indication of who is behind the camera. The Ward is not a bad film. It is certainly not a great film, and one can’t help feeling that it is only because of Carpenter’s back catalogue that it feels so tepid. And a little anonymous. At times it feels like a film that is paying homage to the work of John Carpenter. While it exudes an oddly endearing old fashioned quality, it still lacks the verve and the requisite chills to make it a truly engaging affair. Sure, the acting is fine – stand out performance comes from Amber Heard, who proved with All the Boys Love Mandy Lane that she is fully equipped to carry a film – but the characters are just so thinly drawn and proceedings are just so workmanlike that they fail to muster the intensity such a premise promises. More successful, initally anyway, is the central mystery, and for a while, Carpenter maintains the is-she-or-isn't-she-insane angle quite well.


While the majority of the film takes place within the confines of the eponymous ward, Carpenter fails to create the same feeling of claustrophobia inherent in earlier offerings such as Assault on Precinct 13, Dark Star or Prince of Darkness. That said, the hospital is a damn creepy place and the director’s camera stalks the lonely halls with calculated menace. While Carpenter builds suspense slowly, assuredly, everything still exhibits a distinct ‘seen it all before’ quality. A number of recurring shots of the main corridor of the ward begin to grate a little, while a few gratuitous, though admittedly well orchestrated shocks mark the film as more ‘fun ride’ than a serious attempt to scare or unsettle the audience. The death scenes are well oiled but Carpenter relies too heavily on J-Horror stylisation instead of creating anything original. The make-up and SFX courtesy of Greg Nicotero et al are effective enough, and Carpenter wisely sticks to the ‘glimpse here, corner of the screen there’ approach when depicting ghostly goings on. CGI is wisely kept to a minimum and the short sharp bursts of violence punctuate proceedings with old-school gusto.

The characters are all the usual cookie-cutter misfit types you’d expect to see in a second rate movie set in a psychiatric hospital. They range from the kittenishly seductive Sarah (Danielle Panabaker, Friday the 13th remake), lesbian artist Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), self-harming instigator Emily (Mamie Gummer) to timid and mousy Zoey (Laura-Leigh). The wardens and nurses are as harsh and unsympathetic as they come, though as Dr Stringer, Jared Harris at least pretends to care for his patients. Some of the dialogue - particularly that spoken by Zoey - registers highly on the unintentionally funny radar, though it is testament to the skills of the actresses involved that they carry off their threadbare roles with some integrity. It is only really due to the foreseeable ‘twist’ that the stock characterisation can be accepted. I won’t say any more about this as even the less than attentive audience member should see what’s coming – though to the film’s credit, it is no less enjoyable a ride to the climactic ‘reveal.’ The by now obligatory ‘it’s-not-really-all-over-shock-ending-before-the-credits’ that most horror flicks now boast, can go fuck itself. Though I have to admit it made me jump clean out of my skin.


I went to an early evening screening of John Carpenter’s The Ward on this, its opening night. I opted to see this film instead of Black Swan, another film about sinister psychological shenanigans, albeit a more critically lauded one. Hey, I’m that big a John Carpenter fan. Aronofsky’s probably-masterpiece can wait. Alas, there were about seven or eight other people in the cinema – the majority of them were school boys who voiced their appreciation of the film, or rather of Amber Heard, quite a lot. They were also all too aware of the conventions Carpenter sticks rigidly to. They probably weren’t even born when Carpenter was trail blazing those very same conventions. Ingrates. It was a little sad to see the film in such lukewarm circumstances. But hey, it opened here without any fanfare at all, so maybe if one doesn’t allow expectations to get too high, one won’t be too disappointed. It is great to see Carpenter's work back on the big screen though. 

As mentioned, this is not a return to form, but it is at least a sign that Carpenter can still oil the cogs of suspense and turn out a competent, if rudimentary spook-fest.
And I’m sorry, but as tepid as the film is, it still doesn’t warrant that utterly half-arsed poster. Take it away!


In other news: John Carpenter is baaaaaaack! Let's hope his next offering is more in keeping with what we'd expect from him.

8 comments:

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

An interesting review James - I'm glad to see you didn't adopt the default position for John Carpenter's films and approach it negatively. Too much criticism of Carpenter starts with negative stuff and rarely progresses beyond that. There were signs in his episode of 'Masters of Horror' CIAGRETTE BURNS that Carpenter still had something of use and value to contribute to the horror genre. I wouldn't totally rule out Carpenter helming one more great film, but it would appear THE WARD isn't quite it.

Holger Haase said...

Thanks for that review. Just recently I was wondering when we will ever see a new Carpenter movie. I had completely missed the fact that he actually already *had* a new film out. Will definitely check it out.

Personally I don't see that all his later films are such a huge fall from grace. He certainly hasn't gone as low as e.g. Argento. There are a good bunch of his later films I really enjoy. And at the same time there are also some of his earlier films I find overrated. (Dare I say it: Halloween?)

But overall I do believe that a new Carpenter always is and always will be something to look forward to.

Lysergic Earwax said...

Interesting review, I could be tempted to watch it...Personally I don't think Carpenter has made anything worthwile since "Mouth Of Madness" (a neglected masterpiece of IMHO). I think someone needs to write some kind of critical study/investigation into the decline that the great genre directors fell into later in their careers. It is troubling to see once great filmmakers turning out hollow pastiches of their early successes. I guess out of the ones who came to prominence in the late '60s and early 70s Cronenberg was the only one to escape the trend by leaping the boundaries and making a move into more mainstream, though still edgy material. I do prefer his early films though...

James said...

@Shaun This isn't bad, it is just that Carpenter is capable of so much more. But hey, like I said - it is good to see him making films again!

@Holger Yeah, this just seemed to slip out without much fanfare. I know what you mean about his later films, but come on! Village of the Damned and Vampires are terrible. I still enjoy the likes of Escape from LA and, dare I say it, Ghosts of Mars though. And you're right! A new Carpenter film always is and always will be something to look forward to.

Holger Haase said...

I feel indifferent to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED but wouldn't say it's awful. I also enjoyed GoM, ESCAPE and..... VAMPIRES (probably even more than GoM even). Some of the films of his that I least like are from way back when: STARMAN, CHRISTINE and INVISIBLE MAN.

Emily said...

Very thoughtful review James. I was pretty reluctant to see this after early talk, but I'm glad to hear your more balanced view. It continues to sadden me when I see these sorts of directorial de-evolutions, but you make The Ward sound like not a total waste of time.

James said...

@Lysergic earwax I love Cronenberg! Especially his early work. The Brood is a particular fave.

@Emily Check it out. It isn't a bad film, just a very conventional one. Like I said, it is just really good to have JC making films again! :o)

@Holger I don't think I've seen Starman! I think Christine and Invisable Man had their moments. I still really dont like Village though! Having said that, if it were on TV, I wouldn't turn it to another channel. Even when JC isn't on top form, his work is still at least entertaining. ;o)

The Film Connoisseur said...

Nice review. At least Carpenter hasnt fallen into Hooper or Argento territory, you know, making crappy movies in their last days.

Good to see his newer stuff is at the very least watchable.

You are right, that half assed poster has no passion to it. It lets us see the importance the studio gave the film...which apparently wasnt much.

Not that many horror movies are being released theatrically, horror films have been slowly but surely cut out from theaters, only one are two are released in October and thats it. So sad....I remember a time when horror thrived in theaters! That was the time when directors like Carpenter were kings of horror...