Thursday, June 23, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: John Carpenter's The Ward (2010)



During the last twenty years, or since 1994 at least, director John Carpenter's biggest problem may just have been that good is simply not good enough for many of his devoted admirers, and for many mainstream critics as well.  Myself included.

When gazing at Carpenter's career accomplishments, it's not difficult to discern why such high expectations endure.

This a man who has directed legitimately great action pictures (Assault on Precinct 13 [1976], Escape from New York [1981]), several superb horror films (Halloween [1978], The Fog [1980], The Thing [1982]) plus a plethora of films that are widely hailed as cult classics and gaining more respect and devotion by the year (Big Trouble in Little China [1986], Prince of Darkness [1987], They Live [1988] In The Mouth of Madness [1994]).  

Additionally, Carpenter's films are re-made by Hollywood virtually every day (not always to good effect). And at the height of his mainstream popularity in the late eighties, movies with even tenuous relationships to the director were being sold in television commercials on the basis of having originated from "the mind of John Carpenter." (Black Moon Rising).

So anticipation for a new Carpenter film is always sky high, and hungry horror fans desperately want him to deliver "another" Halloween or The Thing.  

Carpenter's first feature film in ten years (since Ghosts of Mars) won't satisfy that particular desire...if satisfaction of such a desire is even possible.

And yet, there should be no mistake about The Ward, either.   It's a handsome, sturdily-crafted genre film, and an effective yarn that, until the very end, cloaks its true nature suspensefully.  In some ways, John Carpenter's The Ward distinguishes itself most by what it is not, rather than what it is.  But more on that cryptic-sounding description in a moment.

"Welcome to Paradise"

The Ward tells the story of a young girl named Kristen (Amber Heard) in the year 1966.  After intentionally burning down a white, rural farmhouse, she is taken to the imposing, grim North Bend Psychiatric Hospital. 

There, she is warehoused on a ward with a group of girls who have been similarly designated "lost causes."  The other girls show Kirsten the lay of the land, including "The Sad People:" a couple who occasionally look down mournfully at the girls from Dr. Stringer's (Jared Harris) office window. 

The girls in the ward are treated cruelly by the staff, and live on a steady diet of pills and electro-shock therapy.  Even more disturbing than that, there appears to be some kind of angry specter haunting the Ward: the decaying corpse of a former patient, Alice Hudson.

Alice apparently wants revenge against the current inhabitants of the ward for some unspecified wrong, and sets about capturing the girls...one by one.  After Alice takes her captives, they seem to disappear from the hospital, and Kristen can't get answers from the uncooperative, sullen staff.

"You can't get them to tell you anything around here," she is informed.

Finally, Alice comes calling for Kristen, a real "survivor."  Kristen confronts Dr. Stringer and demands from him the truth about Alice Hudson.

"I don't like the dark. Bad things happen in the dark."

Although some critics have pointed out surface similarities between John Carpenter's The Ward and another horror film of recent vintage from another big name director, the final resolution of the drama here is almost less important than the specifics of the journey.   First and foremost, The Ward seems to be a mood piece.

In particular, Carpenter's The Ward provides a detailed evocation of a bygone era (and also, therefore, that era's belief system).   With touches both small and meticulous, the film crafts a case regarding American society's abandonment of the mentally ill.  They are locked them away in fearsome places such as North Bend, a mid-20th Century facility that, today, seems both prehistoric and barbaric.  The film opens (over the main credits) with disturbing images (literary and visual) of the mistreatment of the mentally ill across the span of history.

Carpenter's camera lovingly lingers on the byzantine details of this unpleasant purgatory: on an antiquated intercom system, on an old record player, on the ward's one and only TV set (which plays scenes from the Bert I. Gordon movie, Tormented [1960]), and the crumbling, utilitarian, labyrinthine walls of the facility itself. 

Carpenter's camera probes, stalks and otherwise explores this setting relentlessly.  As viewers, we thus visually glean the idea of the Ward as a maze from which there is no escape.  There are paths up and down (a dumbwaiter in the basement; an uncooperative elevator to traverse floors) but there is never a way out.  The only exteriors in the film, after the prologue -- to the best of my memory -- are establishing shots, or one brief view of the courtyard.  But mostly John Carpenter's The Ward remains inside the belly of the beast.  And without giving away the denouement, this is an example of form expertly echoing content.

Since The Ward concerns mental illness, Carpenter also uses a wide variety of techniques to suggest the fracturing of sanity, or consensus reality.  He carves up the characters' already crumbling sense of  time and space with frequent dissolves and jump cuts.  Such visual styling make a point about the brevity of human life, but also the seemingly-eternal nature of North Bend by comparison.  Characters seem to jump and hiccup, shift and disappear, in the sands of time.  But the walls of North Bend are forever.

Above I noted that what John Carpenter's The Ward "isn't" is perhaps as critical as what the film "is."  Permit me to explain. This is a horror film entirely devoid of any self-referential twaddle, goofy self-conscious "look at me" moments, and many of the bells and whistles that have come to adorn the genre in the last few years. 

Instead, there's an almost old-fashioned sense of naivete to the characters and their setting here that, in terms of Carpenter's own career, harks back most closely to Halloween (1978).  The movie isn't over-girded with distractions and since there's no googling, no texting and no cell phones are present, The Ward's atmosphere is something akin to landing in a time warp

At times during the film, we feel like we are in 1966 too, in that mental ward of the damned (which to my eye, resembles Kubrick's Overlook from an exterior perspective...) right alongside Heard's Kristen.  Heard is pretty compelling in the film too (though I didn't care much for in Drive Angry), and here she closely resembles a young Tippi Hedren, especially when she pulls her hair back.

One scene in the film that perfectly captures the innocent nature of the film's characters.  The girls of the ward put on a record album and begin to dance together without self-consciousness.  It feels like a completely spontaneous, childish moment -- an outburst of joy -- right down to the upbeat nature of the 1960s rock music.  The scene only shifts to something darkwhen Carpenter unexpectedly switches angles on us -- to an ominous tracking shot moving, pushing into the room.  It's as if the reality of the maze, of North Bend itself encroaches on this bubble of innocence and shatters it before it can truly breathe or flower.

Some critics have commented negatively on Carpenter's ubiquitous, trademark tracking shots and pans, noting that they are overdone or in some way boredom-provoking. 

Again, I differ.  These shots effectively create an almost trance-like effect in the audience, lulling it into a false sense of security before the next jump scare, zinger or attack.   For all intents and purposes, The Ward is about visiting a very specific, pre-Internet world and getting trapped there for ninety minutes, unable to navigate a way out.  The devil is in the details and in the accomplished visual presentation. Carpenter truly aces this aspect of the film. 

I've also read some critics wonder why Carpenter made this film at all, and the answer seems plain based on the imagery of The Ward.  He had the unique opportunity to recreate the year 1966 on film, and a dark corner of 1966 at that.  Creating that era -- a moment from his own youth, even -- must have proven an irresistible assignment for the director, and the period details here are nothing shy of exquisite; from the knobs on the electroshock machine to the look of the glass drug syringes (which we see breaking human skin).

There's no doubt this is a different Carpenter than we have seen in some time.  For all their respective virtues, Vampires (1998) and even my beloved Ghosts of Mars (2001) featured at least some sense of cheesiness or cheeky humor.  Not The Ward.  This film is stripped down, efficient, and serious.

The only question then, becomes, are such virtues enough to earn Carpenter the approbation of audiences today?  Some fans may feel he has ably re-connected with his sense of focus, but has done so in the wrong vehicle: a predictable and fairly familiar story of mental illness and abuse.

I'm not sure this is the wrong vehicle, frankly.   While it's absolutely true that The Ward is not a cerebral, idea-a-minute effort such as Prince of Darkness, They Live, or even In The Mouth of Madness, The Ward does land us -- in visceral terms -- in a pretty horrific corner of the Earth.

In the last two days I've reviewed Dawning, a horror film by a newcomer, and The Ward, a horror film by a master.  Both directors and both productions superbly forge atmospheres of dread and pin down the specifics of a very frightening, limited location (a cabin the woods, and a mental hospital in the 1960s, respectively). 

Recent horror films such as My Bloody Valentine (2009), Friday the 13th (2009),  Piranha 3-D  (2010) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) have all failed rather egregiously in this regard.  My Bloody Valentine was set in a poor mining town, but that world never felt real and was never excavated in the slightest.  Setting was mere backdrop for the film's 3-D, coming-at-ya effects.  A Nightmare on Elm Street was gruesome, and yet never actually scary.  Piranha 3-D was stupid in an aggressive, muscular and fun fashion, and yet never for a moment did it create a world that audiences could believe in, recognize or "get into."

With efforts such as Dawning and Carpenter's The Ward it's possible (though not probable...) we're seeing the genre self-correct; moving back to a sturdier foundation, one constructed upon mood, atmosphere and close attention to details of mood and setting. 

The old pleasures of the horror film, you might even term these welcome touches. 

I certainly hope that's the case.  John Carpenter's films usually age remarkably well, rising above their flashier contemporary brethren and standing the test of time. 

There's absolutely no reason to suspect The Ward is going to be any different.

17 comments:

  1. Hi John,

    Well written review. We just screened THE WARD as part of the Seattle Int'l FF and I must admit I wasn't a big fan of this latest Carpenter outing. People want to like it because of its pedigree, but if THE WARD was the work of a newcomer (and not a vetted master), I don't think it would have made the cut. Carpenter is one of my favorite genre directors, and I hope to see a few more great works before he retires, but I don't think THE WARD is one of them.

    Keep the great Cult Reviews coming!

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  2. Hi Denise,

    Thank you so much for your kind words about my review, and my work here. I appreciate them very much.

    Regarding The Ward -- I think the opposite could be true. That if this were the work of someone without Carpenter's pedigree, the film would be lauded more heavily. But because it is Carpenter behind the camera, we expect instant "classic" status from every film he makes, right out the gate. That's an impossible expectation. I felt that The Ward represented really solid, really focused, really good work. I just think that for so many Carpenter fans, that's likely not enough.

    Great comment,

    best,
    JKM

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  3. I'm very much looking forward to this one. I wouldn't be surprised if it ages "remarkably well, rising above their flashier contemporary brethren and standing the test of time." GHOSTS OF MARS certainly did -- I kinda didn't think much of it at first, but now really appreciate it. It really is too bad that JC gets so much initial flak in whatever he releases in the latter part of his career. As he stated last year at an American Cinematheque discussion of his films, it's one of the things that drove him away from directing movies for 10 years. And that's really too bad because we need the caliber of perspective this filmmaker brings. Excellent review, as usual, John. Thanks.

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  4. John you speak much wisdom concerning the Carpenter cult - if he gave them exactly what they want, they wouldn't want it! It's been done to death. I loved Ghosts of Mars on its release, because I saw it with my Argentine wife at the time--and Carpenter has a huge auteur rep in Buenos Aires, as in Europe--as a filmmaker rather than a shockmeister. But the 86th St. audience around us in the theater hated it, as it wasn't 'scary.' - Of course not! It was a Rio Bravo type comedy! Jeeeze. So they'll hate the Ward because it's not a comedy? no Big Daddy Mars? All that said, I hated Cigarette Burns, his film for the Masters of Horror series. What a good opportunity wasted. Anyway, excellent review, as usual!

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  5. Hi Le0pard 13 and Erich:

    Great comments!

    le0pard13: I totally adore Ghosts of Mars, and think it's a pretty great film. It's one I can watch and enjoy anytime, but I know what you mean, because I felt the same way about Vampires.

    I understand what Carpenter said. He is expected, it seems, to step up and hit one out of the park every time he's at bat. Instead of applauding a double, the audience gives him a thumbs down. It's gotta be incredibly tough and disheartening for the guy.

    This isn't much consolation, but his films really do age well; and really do rise above the rest. In 20 years, The Ward will be re-assessed more positively, just as audiences have more enthusiastically re-assessed Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness and the like.

    Erich: Thank you for the kind words about the review, and also your insightful commentary on the audience for Carpenter films in 2011. We want him to deliver another Halloween or The Thing, but if he gave us either, we'd accuse him of repeating himself. It's kind of shameful; you're absolutely right.

    I've learned the hard way not to bet against Carpenter's vision. When I wrote Films of John Carpenter back in 2000, I was intensely disappointed with Vampires, as my review indicated. Now, I enjoy it much more and see that I was wrong. At least I have had the opportunity to rectify that in my upcoming Horror Films of the 1990s book.

    The takeaway lesson, I suppose is that Carpenter has such a solid grounding in film style/technique/visualization (which filmmakers of today often don't) that even his lesser films, ten or twin years later, swim to the top of the cinematic ocean.

    Great comments!

    best,
    JKM

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  6. This is such an insightful review, and one that gives me hope that quality horror films are still being made in the US. I've read so many negative reviews of The Ward that never quite get to the meat of exactly why they are negative. Most of them allude to it being "boring" or "cliche" and that's the end of the critique. Thank you for outlining your own reflections in such clear manner.

    It seems throughout Carpenter's career, his films almost always have to be "revisited" in order for audiences to appreciate them.

    I'm thinking specifically of the negative reviews of The Thing upon its release, and which has now, in the eyes of some, gone on to become the definitive work in Carpenter's career.

    The same with Prince of Darkness which I remember most people hating, and now exists on many top 10 or top 20 best 80's horror film lists.

    I came around on Vampires nearly 12years after seeing it, and hope that the same goes for Ghost of Mars.

    I'm looking forward to The Ward with realistic expectations. Thanks again for the great review!

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  7. Excellent review as always, JKM! I haven't seen THE WARD yet but the bottom line seems to be that it is a good film and not great one. Which is fine by me. I'm just happy to see a new Carpenter film. I hope that this is merely JC getting his feet wet in filmmaking again and from recent interviews it seems to have revitalized him. All we can hope is that he keeps cranking out films.

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  8. Hello, Chris!

    Welcome to the blog.

    I agree with you. I've read so many negative reviews of The Ward by people who just want to dismiss it, seemingly.

    They will tell you it is slow, or the ending familiar, but what they won't tell you is the exquisite nature of Carpenter's direction; the fine evocation of period detail; the overwhelming sense of dread he builds, or the like.

    A lot of the power in the film arises from the selection of angles; the choice of shots, etc. A lot of very prominent critics still don't seem to get or appreciate this idea. All they see is that the twist ending is one they've seen before; and so they draw a conclusion.

    Going in with realistic expectations really is the way to go here. I think that's a good, universal rule of thumb.

    And you are absolutely right about The Thing and Carpenter's other films. I remember Prince of Darkness was once even named "Worst film of the year" by some critic. The guy can't seem to catch a break!

    Excellent comment.

    best,
    JKM

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  9. Hi J.D.

    My friend, you said it perfectly. The Ward is a good film, just not a "home run" on the scale of Halloween or The Thing.

    Like you, I'm just glad to have Carpenter back in the game, working again on feature films. He's still got a lot of fire in him, I think, and I want to see what he does next.

    Thank you for a great comment, my friend.

    best,
    JKM

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  10. A surprise to see here this day and a fun read to see what the author of The Films Of John Carpenter had to add.

    Well, after a full-on work up, it would appear The Ward has us right where Carpenter wants us and that history will unveil its qualities accordingly.

    Interesting read and always interesting analysis on Carpenter. It will be fun to see how this one ages.

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  11. steve prefontaine2:45 PM

    John Carpenter inbues his films with such an astonishing re-watchability factor and i actually think thats the most impressive thing that any film maker can achieve when making movies, even more impressive than: Oscar wins, rave reveiws, or massive box-office.

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  12. Hello, everyone!

    SFF: I was happy to get a chance to see The Ward, and wanted to feature it here, in part, to combat some of the overt negativity about the film that has played out in early reviews. The Ward is an effective horror film, with beautiful visuals. One day, maybe I'll get a shot at updating Films of John Carpenter to include this... :)

    Steve: I agree with you. I wish more people held that belief too. I've probably watched Halloween a hundred times, and it's still scary, fresh, and effective, each time. Not many people can achieve that feat, if you ask me. Still, I would really, really like to see The Academy present Carpenter with a lifetime achievement award. Not likely, I know. But he sure as hell deserves it.

    best,
    JKM

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  13. Re-watchability factor---yes, that's it! Some filmmakers do have that gift. Many of my friends enjoy his films and have seen them multiple times. I've only seen a couple of his films in the theater, mostly on VHS or DVD. But ever since I first saw some of his film on tv or VHS or DVD, I had friends who had seen his stuff on numerous occasions and recommended it to me.

    I've seen Dark Star a couple of times, and probably have watched Big Trouble in Little China a good half-dozen times; it always seems fresh.

    I don't expect to see Halloween, The Fog, Christine, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, or Escape From LA again; I'm not keen on horror at all, and saw those last three with my ex-wife who is a big horror fam. However, just because I didn't like them didn't mean they were bad films, they were good. (That is to say they were well done films, quite amazing, but I didn't love them. They are highly respected by me.) I'd like to see The Thing again. I will probably see Dark Star again and absolutely will see Big Trouble again, the one film of his I definitely love.

    There are several films I'd like to see but haven't--both versions of Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York, The Philadelphia Experiment, Starman, The Boy Who Could Fly, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and Ghosts of Mars. I enjoy sf, fantasy, and action films, and Carpenter is quite the phenomenal filmmaker in these genres. In a lot of ways, I think he rejuvenated all three of these fields---not just horror, which he is most renowned for by the general public. He's a master of action, a master of fantasy, a master of science fiction. I hope he continues to make films.

    Gordon Long

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  14. Gordon:

    I love your comment, and your take on Carpenter as a master of action, fantasy and sci-fi as well as horror. I wrote in my book The Films of John Carpenter that he was really the "King of all Genres," and it's nice to see that somebody else sees his career, and his accomplishments in the same fashion. Don't miss Starman, and also Ghosts of Mars, if you can help it. Those are extraordinary sci-fi based films in my opinion, especially Starman. Everyone else hates Ghosts of Mars, but I get a supreme kick out of it as a futuristic take on the war film Zulu. If you look at in that light, it's kind of brilliant.

    I also agree with you regarding the re-watchability factor. It makes Carpenter a very special guy.

    best,
    JKM

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  15. Just caught this one and enjoyed it quite a bit. I've been catching up with Carpenter's work lately (and doing my own blog posts on it), and have been really enjoying what I've seen. "The Ward" is a solid horror film, with a great atmosphere, some solid gore and a good set of jump scares. I can't see how a horror fan would be disappointed with it.

    As to the ending, I didn't see it coming, but my wife did. For my wife that was a bit a of a deal breaker, which surprised me. I can't say I was super fond of the ending, but it worked well enough with the rest of the film. As another poster noted, this is a solid double, not a home run. But no director hits that home run every time. And as you've said, it's just nice to have carpenter back.

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  16. Anonymous4:31 AM

    JKM: Most intelligent review on 'The Ward' I have been able to find! I have already seen it 4 times and will no doubt enjoy it again in the not-too-distant future. I admire Carpenter's ability to find scares without leaning on any universally affective superstitions to do so. As a trauma survivor who has been hospitalized with psychotic delusions I was thrilled to see that he has accurately captured the essence of the experience, it's practically a documentary! The 'reality' of 'The Ward' and its 'horror setting' that is part of the history of modern medicine, and the fact that our most powerful enemy is our own psyche, are elegantly and effectively expressed. Love it :)

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  17. Goddammit. Where am I when you review these films? I feel like Joker from Batman: "Why didn’t somebody tell me he had one of those...things!”

    Speaking of Nicholson, your comparison of the ward setting to Kubrick’s Overlook is quite keen; right there in plain sight and I never noticed it. Yet, as you say, not an ounce of it (or any other aspect of the movie) feels referential, only inspired. The general sentiment of your review has left me somewhat discouraged. It’s got me thinking: is horror filmmaking -- or just filmmaking -- of this class really no longer deemed worthy by the status quo? Have movies such as this been forever put out to pasture, only to be savored by connoisseurs of the genre? I’ve heard good things about films like Woman in Black and, most recently, The Conjuring, and it seems like The Ward, focused on tone and methodical storytelling, would fit right in with moviegoers who enjoyed the other two. Except it was almost completely discarded by the same critics and, furthermore, was given a limp-dick theatrical distribution here stateside, whereas many other low(er) budget horror films have been performing respectively well commercially over the past few years, or have at least been getting a lot of attention, earning notable fanbases. So, what gives?

    Was it simply bad timing or was The Ward just too old, figuratively speaking?

    Anyway, you’ll probably never read this, as it’s long since tucked away in the archives of your blog. Good write up all the same.

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