Tuesday, 31 May 2011
Review : John Carpenter's The Ward ( 2010 )
Set in Oregon, 1966, a young girl is apprehended confused and unresponsive, after burning down a farmhouse, and is taken to a mental institution. There she quickly realizes that she and the other inmates are in grave danger from a vengeful spirit.
'An old school horror film by an old school director'. John Carpenters own words, regarding his first full length feature in almost a decade. Are his words accurate? Well, lets see.
First of all, the man himself needs no introduction. He stands as one of the true masters of the horror genre, and is beloved by millions for the stellar works early in his career. HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, THE THING and PRINCE OF DARKNESS are all bona fide horror royalty. Timeless films that have shaped the way in which we view the genre. On a personal level, Carpenter is the most prominent reason I fell in love with the genre in the first place. HALLOWEEN holds a place in my heart that can never be tarnished. It is, to me, a portal into my childhood, and into my fears. Its a perfect work of art in an imperfect world. And no amount of disappointing dreck like GHOSTS OF MARS or VAMPIRES will ever take my love for the great man away. That said, this will be a very hard review for me to write...
THE WARD was always going to fall into one of three categories, just as all Carpenters work has before it. Of course, all fans hoped and prayed for a return to the glory days, but very few of us, if we held true and were honest with ourselves; ever really believed he could pull it off. At the same time we feared the worst, a return to such mind numbing shit storms as GHOSTS OF MARS or ESCAPE FROM LA. We thought our great directors talent had inexplicably passed away in the night on sitting through those films, and THE WARD would have instilled automatic terror in the fans, were it not for his work on episodes on short lived horror anthology, MASTERS OF HORROR. He showed us with those two works that he still had something to say, and still had the chops to perhaps pull off the miracle and create yet another masterpiece. Alas, the miracle was not to be, but it aint all bad. Far from it..
THE WARD falls firmly into the middle bracket of Carpenters work. Its destined to rank in fans minds alongside BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and CHRISTINE as an enjoyable yet underwhelming affair.. By no means a bad film but certainly a far cry from the genius displayed in the aforementioned legendary works.
This shouldn't come as any real surprise. It was always going to be a disappointment. Sure, we knew in our hearts that it would never match the brilliance of his early works, but we secretly, quietly hoped that maybe, just maybe, the mellow old stoner would pull it off. It was destined never to match our expectations. After all, Carpenters alumni all had their shot at comebacks and all faltered similarly. Its something to do with age, and to do with losing the fire. The masters all deserve our unending respect, but that doesn't mean we have to blind ourselves to the obvious.
Horror, like Rock n Roll ,is the domain of the young. Sure the young upstarts wouldn't be able to piss in a pot were it not for their forefathers, but time dulls all blades, sadly. Its just the way it is.
Look at Dario Argento. His contemporary work is unrecognisable when compared to the genius he effortlessly flaunted in his youth. Did we really expect MOTHER OF TEARS to come close to the power or artistry of SUSPIRIA or INFERNO? Of course not, ( we didn't expect it to be quite so thoughtless and dreary, but that's another story). Look at Romero. I love the man, but SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD were two of the most incompetent zombie films of recent years. Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven have fared a little better, but even then, both had produced some real fuck ups, ( MY SOUL TO TAKE ranking highest/lowest in that list). All great artists eventually lose their genius. They either burn out or fade away. we should be content then, that Carpenter has at least crafted an enjoyable, if flawed film.
Now, lets step onto THE WARD, and see if we wanna book ourselves in.
Lets get this out of the way before delving into what makes THE WARD work and what holds it back. Anxious horror fans can rest easy. The great man doesn't embarrass himself at all. This is a million miles from GHOSTS OF MARS and its ilk. Its a well crafted film. Its not gonna set the world on fire and its derivative as all hell, but it has much to recommend it, especially to Carpenter fans. Its hard for a humble man such as myself to review a film by such a respected artist and speak of it in a negative light, but that's what I must do here. The good news does manage to outweigh the bad though, so breathe deeply.
I'll start with what doesn't work. First of all, the film shows a startling lack or originality in every area. There is absolutely nothing we haven't seen before here. We get the stern Nurse Ratchet figure carried over from a thousand other mental hospital scenarios. We get the dark past that no one seems willing to talk about. we get more than one 'figure in the mirror' jump scare we've all seen done to death, and the central concept of the plot, as revealed towards the end, is a straight rip-off of an earlier, better movie. I cant mention that movie here as its literally the EXACT same story with the exact same twist, but I can mention one other film it will be compared to, and that is SHUTTER ISLAND. A film which is leaps and bounds ahead of this one. Theres no real comparison and perhaps there shouldn't be. THE WARD, for all Carpenters talk of being 'old school' is really a very derivative mash-up of a number of more modern genres. Yes, it has the ghost story elements, but its kills are more aligned with the slasher sub-genre. It also dabbles ever so slightly in the much maligned torture genre. But what it aims for as its number one target, and fails to emulate, is J-Horror. The main reason why it fails is that we see the vengeful spirit from the get go. And all mystery and apprehension is lost rapidly.
All great horror directors and fans understand that often, especially when dealing with a ghost story; less is more. What you don't see is infinitely more terrifying than what you DO see. And here, you see it all, from the very start. Strangely, there is absolutely ZERO build up to the big scares. As the ghost angle is the films main conceit, it seems strange that Carpenter would bypass this as an area to elicit suspense and dread, and go for the cheap jump scare. I cant understand this choice. Especially when the man is so adept at suspense. as he shows in other areas of the film. Another thing that took the fizz out of my pint was the fact that Carpenter didn't write the screenplay or compose the music. Two things hes always excelled at, (well, almost always). Why call it 'John Carpenters The Ward' when its written by someone else? The mans known as an auteur and here he seems to be merely a director for hire. Strange choice for a comeback.
That's not to say its a poorly written film, its adequate, though could have used some sharpening up to clarify some points near the finale. It does all come together, just. As for the music, its actually one of the films strong points. sure, the big man didn't compose it, but its clearly inspired by his past works, and those of Argento stalwarts, The Goblins. Its eerie, disquieting and compliments the tone of the film well. Like everyone on the planet, Id rather have had an original soundtrack by Carpenter, but I cant deny its a strong work, only faltering when we're bombarded with the prerequisite jump scare drum clashes.
Carpenters eye for a great composition is also present and correct. The film looks great. From the very first quick cut shots of the asylum, you can sense the mans hands all over it. he has a way of aligning a shot that really adds depth and darkness to an otherwise nondescript scene. The asylum itself is a brilliant set, and the whole film has a tone of claustrophobia that really draws the viewer in. And the choice of setting the film in 1966 adds to that element of alienation. It really does feel like these girls are trapped, confined and in mortal danger with no hope of escape.
Speaking of the girls. The cast does really well with what little character they have to work with. We get stock personalities for a mental ward setting, of course. The aforementioned bitch of a nurse being the most obvious. Upcoming scream queen, Amber Heard, plays her part well. She makes for a strong lead, showing resilience and depth in a character that is written with practically none. And her support is well played too. Danielle Panebaker playing the ward's resident bitch with a surprising touch of pathos. For me, though, the standout performance is that of Mamie Gummer as the most eccentric of the bunch. She plays her part just right, and makes for a very endearing sidekick to Heard's hardass loner.You'll care for these girls, and fear for them when they find themselves in harms way. One brilliant scene that find the girls sporadically dancing only to be thrust into darkness and fear a second later, really ups the audiences compassion for these lovable misfits.
And its here where the film truly succeeds. In making us care for his protagonists and plunging them into such a fearful setting, Carpenter manages to build some brilliantly suspenseful sequences. As I mentioned before, its very strange that they never involve any of the plots supernatural elements, but they DO work. Carpenters love for early Argento shows clearly in these sequences, and that's no bad thing. There are numerous escape scenes that show Carpenter still has it. Its a very positive sign for any future projects he takes on.
So, THE WARD is neither here nor there. It has moments of greatness and moments of predictability. It grabs a number of sub genres and tries to meld them, and often fails in that regard. Yet it a very watchable film with endearing characters, a great location and a number of suspenseful moments. Theres enough here to have me believing that given the right script, (preferably one of his own), our favourite horror legend could make another classic. Anythings possible and the signs are good. Just have faith in yourself, John, and take some risks next time. I, for one, am glad to have you back.
6 Sexy Psychos out of 10