Very interestingly, John Carpenter discusses the current vogue for post-production colour-grading with regards to the green/blue cyan tint that many modern films seem to revel in during his commentary over the film. He informs us that the bluish tint to The Ward is the result of the set-design and the art direction rather than any lighting affectation and colour-tinkering, and claims not to like the way that many modern filmmakers overuse this blue/green styling – The Fellowship of the Ring, anyone? Personally, I find this a touch difficult to swallow. The Ward, as with so many of his earlier films, has that distinctive Carpenter visual vibe of simmering, moody midnight blue that adorned the original prints of Halloween, The Fog, Assault On Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. The quintessential Carpenter look has always been A) anamorphic (which this mimics, though is not shot in anamorphic) and B) suffused with a midnight blue neon sheen (which this has to a tee). To me, the film does look as though it has been altered in post-production. That blue taint – which I love, by the way – doesn’t look as though it pertains just from the set-décor and the on-set lighting. Plenty of scenes set in the outdoors and in daylight and in more warmer-lit offices and rooms don’t possess this same level of moody austerity, but the overall permeating aesthetic is very definitely a mysterious pale blue.
Now, with all this in mind, The Ward, seen here in its correct 2.35:1 aspect, unlike the botched initial UK run from Warner, and encoded via AVC, looks precisely how you would expect and, indeed, demand a John Carpenter film to look. It is gloriously wide and massively accommodating to his customary prowling camera – this time accomplished by Yaron Orbach, aping the look and hypnotic grace of Dean Cundey – and often profoundly atmospheric. We are instantly reminded of the gliding photography of the classics from JC's past, most notably the hauntingly fluid investigations of the Antarctic research bases in The Thing. The disc handles all of this without hiccup.
Carpenter evens tells us how he wanted to keep the blacks very deep and stable, very strong to provide threatening shadows and an effective contrast. Well, the transfer does fairly well with them, although I have certainly seen better and stronger. Contrast, on the whole, is decent, if a little heightened. Fidelity is washed-out and drained of life. Skin-tones are positively anaemic, hair lacks shine or lustre. Blood is nice and red when we see it, though. But this is definitely not a colourful film.
Detail is nothing to write home about either, I’m afraid, but I doubt that this has anything to do with an error on the part of the encode. The film doesn't look soft or hazy, however, it is just that the image seems to lack anything finite in its repertoire. That said, it is great to see that the CG maggots writhing beneath the rotting flesh of an apparition are still visible in all their icky, wriggly glory. DNR doesn't play a major part in the proceedings and I wasn't distracted by any obvious signs of compression. There's only a tiny bit of aliasing that I spotted and some brief banding flare-ups that occur when we suddenly segue into or out of a bright light source. We can also see that it is visible during the various company logos at the start, but it is not a major issue. Edge delineation is not marred by ringing or sharpening. Depth is okay … but only okay. I had hoped for a more three-dimensional aspect to the picture but, with the exception of some corridor shots, the odd external view of the building and the image of the burning house, this is not really the case.
What matters, though, is that The Ward looks properly film-like and retains its texture. Noise rarely affects the image, and grain remains consistent. Light and a touch gritty, but still consistent. Certainly this is not a great transfer to show off. In fact, I would say that it is disappointing. I'm only awarding this a 6 out of 10, folks. Whether there are stylistic choices at work here or not, The Ward is a rather drab and dour sight on Blu-ray.
As well as moody visuals, fans always expect something haunting and memorable from a John Carpenter soundtrack. His slick, often self-composed and performed scores and his atmospheric use of ambience and sound design are frequently trademarks that help his films to stand out from the crowd. Well, The Ward may not meet such lofty ideals, but it sure feels and sounds like a John Carpenter film, just the same, with this DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix.
Although he didn’t create the score, composer Mark Kilian is definitely attempting to evoke the same brooding, synth-infused texture that we know and love from vintage Carpenter. The music, as a result, comes over with a smothering and pulsating insistence. The transfer allows it room to breathe and to shimmer. The stingers have all the required lurch and jolt and the creepier passages float across the soundscape with melancholy and eerie persistence. Listen out for the fast, metronomic chiming phrase during the chase scenes towards the end, this is a homage to vintage Carpenter, especially the likes of the similarly hospital-set Halloween II. Run, Baby, Run (back into my arms) from The Newbeats is given nice priority in the mix, too.
Dialogue never falters, although there isn't a great deal of vocal range for the track to work with.
What we get, effects-wise, is good, though not especially great when compared to a lot of similar releases. Atmospheric material, such as the ubiquitous thunderstorms that seem to plague the establishment (and what would a horror film set in a madhouse be without them?), have some nice rumbles and electrical sizzle to them. The mix handles sudden thunderclaps well. They don't seem over-egged, and they carry a sense of realistic pressure and distance to themselves. I like the scene when the girls' dancing is interrupted by a storm that shorts-out the power and the lights, the thunder ripping across the soundstage and then replied-to only by screaming. These elements make full use of the surround speakers. The electric shock therapy is also given some width and detail, the audible burn increasing as the volts are amped-up – and they are amped-up quite considerably during one particular scene. Bodily impacts, people crashing about and the breaking of glass are more effective punctuations in the mix. The sub isn't really going to be troubled by any of this though, and nor will the neighbours because there is a “contained” quality to the mayhem that stops the track from becoming too aggressive.
Although the stereo spread across the front is wide, the immersion of the viewer isn't exactly profound. Wraparound sonics are utilised, but they aren't going to dazzle or amaze, or even particularly convince. Once again, I expected a little bit more from this as Carpenter tends to understand the value of the sound design to the overall film. I'm quite happy that the transfer hasn't made any errors, I'm pleased to say, but you aren't going to come away from this audio experience with any sort of wow-factor, that's for sure.
What this track does, it does in a workmanlike fashion. Nothing more. Being charitable, I'm giving this a 7 out of 10, but don't expect fireworks.
Well, we are talking threadbare here, folks. A real shame.
But, on the bright side, we do, at least get to hear the great man indulge in another commentary track besides the film’s lowly theatrical trailer.
Whilst not a classic akin to those verbal celebrations that he delivered alongside celluloid alter-ego, Kurt Russell, for Escape From New York, The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China, and not as immediately referential and interesting as those for Assault On Precinct 13 or Halloween, it is still great just to hear him discuss the themes that still make him tick and his understanding and opinions of the film industry as he sees it today. Joined by actor Jared Harris, who plays Dr. Stringer in the film, this is a rarely scene-specific ramble through the thought-processes and the skills of both the actor and the director, and a comprehensive, though somewhat stuttering, discussion about how both mindsets are applied to the joint creation of a much bigger picture. Although Harris has some good points to raise about the profession, I would have preferred that the chat-track had managed to purloin Amber Heard. As pivotal as Harris is to the story, he is not in the film all that much and his input to the commentary, as much as he tries, only seems to dry it up.
Carpenter is relaxed throughout, and seems to be making a few excuses for himself and his age regarding his output (or lack of it) over the last ten years, but he does make mention of the prequel for The Thing and even the mooted Snake Plissken remake/prequel/sequel, although he stresses that he is not involved with them in any way, shape or form.
Fans will just love to hear the sound of his voice again, but this is still something of a letdown.
Johhhhnnn Carpenter. I've heard of you. I heard you were … n't making movies any more.
Taken on its own, The Ward is no great shakes in a genre that is sadly all-too obvious to fans who will suss out what's going on very quickly indeed. But as an effective return to directing for a man so hopelessly lost in the doldrums for far too long, it is a remarkably effective reminder of the stylish skills that he once had in abundance.
The cast are very good, Amber Heard supplying plenty of gumption for the heroine and the group of female inmates all delivering fine and effective performances. The shocks are reasonably handled, even though they are a little too formulaic at the same time, but the overall atmosphere is delightfully unsettling and mysterious. And it is wonderful to see a film that so unashamedly sports that classic Carpenter look and sound. We may not have Dean Cundey behind the camera or Carpenter, himself, cooking-up some catchy synth tunes, but the influence of both keeps these essential departments well in line. The Ward also moves along at a fair clip, coming in at a brisk 88 minutes, Carpenter keeping things on the go, economical and without padding. It's true that the films mimics a cluster of other psycho-thrillers rather too closely, but this is a rusty director finding his feet again and I enjoy how he's handled the material.
This US release is horribly underwhelming with regards to supplements, unfortunately. It's always great to hear JC on a chat-track, but the one here has only the occasional gem to be savoured, and the pairing-up with Jared Harris leads the whole thing into a rather dull ramble with altogether too much mutual praise and half-hearted Q & A. Should have gotten Amber Heard to the mike.
Transfer-wise, this is only a middling affair. Neither video nor audio offer anything to shout about, and actually result in a rather flat experience on Blu-ray. But, hey, the good news is that John Carpenter is back and his work here pretty much eclipses the bad taste left by Ghosts Of Mars. Now that he's climbed back on the horse, we have every right to expect great things again.
Personally, I really enjoyed The Ward and I had been more than prepared to find it a disaster. Sure, it's been done before … but this is John Carpenter's take on it … and to some people that means a helluva lot.
What's he going to do next?
Well, as MacReady would say, “Why don't we just wait here for a little while … see what happens.”
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