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The Ward Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 21, 2011

    The Ward Review

    Right, let's get one thing straight right away. This US region-free release of John Carpenter's The Ward has the correct 2.35:1 aspect, unlike the botched UK edition that was swiftly postponed (until October) a few months ago as it was discovered to have been erroneously cropped to 1.78:1 – which, for a Carpenter movie, would be nothing short of catastrophic.

    And now to answer the really important question. Is the once-great John Carpenter back on form?

    Well … let's find out.

    After a shock opening that literally grabs us by the throat, we find ourselves on the run in the Oregon sticks. It is 1966 and a young woman named Kristen (Amber Heard) is fleeing through the trees and across the fields. We aren't sure who she is, but we get the impression that she has escaped from somewhere. She gets to an isolated farmhouse, but far from seeking assistance or shelter there, she torches the place. Local police catch up with her as she sits outside and calmly admires the inferno she has caused. Overpowering her, they take her to the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, where she is swiftly incarcerated and placed on a special ward populated by four other troubled girls. With no apparent memory of who she is or why she burned the house down, it is left to Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) to probe her mind and peel back the veil of her trauma. But explanations are going to be hard to come by. Spooky things are happening on the ward. Kristen is convinced that someone is able to enter the locked rooms at night and to wander the corridors. The other girls all seem to be hiding something from her, some terrible event regarding the former occupant of Kristen's room. Horrible visions of a rotting girl manifest themselves and, one by one, the inmates of the ward seem to go missing. Is there a vengeful ghost prowling around the place? If nobody, including the doctors and the staff, are willing to give her the answers, Kristen is determined not only to find out the truth about the ward's mystery for herself … but to break out of there before a similar fate befalls her too.

    There may not be anything original about the plot but it is easy to see why Michael and Shawn Rasmussen's screenplay for The Ward appealed to Carpenter as the basis for his long-overdue comeback, as the story revolves around a close-knit, but edgy and argumentative group of characters trapped in just one isolated setting and beset with all manner of obstacles. It is the time-honoured Howard Hawks template that so hugely influenced him as a filmmaker, and that he has never strayed too far from away from since his humble film school beginnings with cult SF-comedy Dark Star. Like his hero, Hawks, Carpenter is fascinated by how groups react to bad situations, how they splinter and factionalise and turn on one another, and how one or two people may come to vie for leadership and eventual salvation. He did this most successfully in Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, of course, but he would also attempt it in the mainly misfiring Prince Of Darkness (which, incidentally, he directly mirrors at one nostalgic point). Here, he gets it right. The girls are a convincing bunch of reluctant loonies. Essentially, they do not come across as mere set-dressing, or created just for simple titillation. Whilst Kristen is the obvious catalyst and, by extension and necessity, the leader of the pack, they are all intense individuals with their own traits and agendas. We aren't talking about One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but the quartet that Kristin joins are nicely kooky yet still highly empathetic. They are bestowed just enough material to make them tick … and more than enough to enable us to care what happens to them.

    Mamie Gummer is a wonderful discovery as incendiary hot-rod, Emily. We don't like her, or trust her at all, at first. Unpredictable and irritating, we just want to smack her in the teeth – which someone else actually threatens to do to her, too – but gradually we see through the brusque flippancy and the attention-seeking and perceive the fragile, yet dependable waif who lurks within. Appearing at a communal therapy session with Dr. Stringer with a big red Joker-style lipstick smile scrawled across her face, and an ironically sad expression, is a brilliant little visual aside that has no real bearing on things – other than acting as a subliminal metaphor for the tears of a clown – but it provides a deliciously off-kilter frisson, reminding us that we are, indeed, in a madhouse. The delectable Danielle Panabaker, no stranger to horror films, with the couplet of remakes, the dud Friday The 13th redux for Platinum Dunes and the genuinely effective reinterpretation of The Crazies for Brett Eisner, is just as good as the bitchy, chip-on-the-shoulder opportunist, Sarah. Again, we have a sense of aching vulnerability hiding behind a façade of arrogant confidence and aloof self-importance. Lyndsy Fonseca plays the cute, bespectacled Iris, a charming and immediately likeable character with an artistic bent for penning portraits of her pals … and the odd apparition. At first it seems as though she will become the confidante that Kristen needs, but her outward insight and affability masks her own little cloud-world in which she lives under false hopes and dreams of freedom. Another great little discovery is Laura-Leigh as the teddy-bear clutching woman-child, Zoey. The script, I'm sure, is probably quite barren with regards to characterisation, but Laura-Leigh is devoted enough to come up with smart quirks to provide a surreal depth to the perennial thumb-sucker. I love the moment when the only input she chooses to give towards that same “Joker” group therapy session is to stick her tongue out at the good doctor … with a coin stuck on the end of it. Again, it means nothing and it is not something overtly deranged … but it possesses some calmly introverted dementia that fits right in with the suggestion of collective mania. That she comes to play a crucial part in the unfolding puzzle is hardly surprising.

    But this is Amber Heard's show, and she is excellent as the troubled but determined Kristen. Although permitted to smile only once in the film – and, even then, she practically smuggles it in almost under her breath – she exudes plenty of die-hard charisma. She fights against the system without any of the contrivances of the hard-done-to, falsely imprisoned heroine, and just resolves herself to blowing the lid off the mystery and getting out of there. She is also very convincingly able to run about the warren of corridors, ducts and basements and to handle herself with a credible physicality. She is both vulnerable and feisty, and her embittered resilience is winning without ever being contrived or clichéd. It is refreshing to see a lead damsel who doesn't fly into hysterics either, or come across as the wronged kitten. She simply gets on with it. Each set-back is met and dealt with, Kristen regrouping and adapting a new strategy. She's far less deadly than Sarah Connor, say, but she is just as dedicated to her cause. We know next to nothing about her, other than that she once felt compelled to commit arson, yet we are completely on her side, no matter what. Heard was also good in the otherwise unsatisfying psycho-thriller All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. It doesn't harm the film that the girls are all irresistible, of course, and you have to hand it to Carpenter, the sly old dog, for managing to shoehorn-in a group shower sequence without it seeming stereotypical and contrived purely for the sake of seeing some naked ladies. In fact, the scene, which actually shows us nothing at all, is shot in a semi-dreamlike manner that is vaguely reminiscent of how Brian De Palma handled the opening scene in Carrie. The director has stated that the prospect of working with a bunch of gorgeous “Hollywood starlets” was the bait that finally lured him away from the sofa and weaned him off playing video games. Naturally, we have to take this with a pinch of salt, but it can't have been such a bad bargaining chip, can it?

    With able support from Susanna Bailey as the hatchet-faced Nurse Lundt and D.R. Anderson as the potential bullyboy porter Roy (“I can be your best buddy, or the thorn in your side.”), the only cast member that I found slightly disappointing was Jared (son of Richard) Harris as the mildly sinister Dr. Stringer. I know that a psychiatrist should obviously be calm and well-mannered around his patients, and that this is precisely how Harris is playing him, but Stringer seems to act as something of a tension-reliever for us, too. Instead of adding to our dread, he has a habit of diluting it. He'd make a great psychiatrist, then. Thing is, he comes across as much too measured and even, creating something of an emotional vacuum in all the scenes he is in. But with some sterling stage and television-work behind him and a refined, upper-crust quality about his demeanour, it will be interesting to see what he does with his interpretation of Prof. Moriarty in the up-and-coming, and hotly anticipated Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows for Guy Ritchie.

    What does Carpenter have against eyes? He blinds Snake Plissken in one, and threatens to have the other one removed by a camp Bruce Campbell in Escape From LA. A couple of medicos in Halloween II get rather nasty injections in that area. One poor fisherman gets both of his gouged out in The Fog. And a mad Norwegian gets one of his shot out by Donald Moffatt in The Thing. I'm sure there's more examples but, for now, he returns to ocular horror in The Ward, in one of several carefully orchestrated shocks, and clearly something of a pun on the victim's name as well. To be honest, this reminds me of how he attempted to spice-up Rick Rosenthal's overly sedate initial interpretation of Halloween II by, ahem, injecting some gore and violence – scenes that he personally oversaw and that have received some critical flack over the years, though I, myself, cannot imagine the film without them. With The Ward, the various “kills” are gruesome though never gratuitous even they do occasionally feel a touch out-of-place. In his commentary for the film, Carpenter says that his cast were a little apprehensive about the “eye” scene, implying that he was potentially bordering upon torture-porn, something that he claims not to like. Whilst the sight of a shackled and screaming victim sitting alongside a tray of vile, sharp and gleaming instruments, that the killer is slowly selecting from, may remind you of Hostel, the effect and the tone is very differently applied to the sequence seen here. Indeed, The Ward is not a particularly violent film. It has its moments, including one reasonably gory demise, but, more satisfyingly and certainly more in-line with his earlier output, this relies more upon suspense and gradually drawn-out, slow-seeping chills. This is the province of “oh no, look behind you!” and blink-and-you'll-miss-em scares. It's old hat, I know, but it's still very effective. And, in the right hands, I reckon it always will be.

    Visually, the film has all the credentials that made the director so distinctive. He may not have been able to afford either to go anamorphic, of which he is the master, or to employ Dean Cundey as his DOP, but the movie is sumptuously shot for widescreen and highly mobile with lots of moody, low level camera prowlings of the hospital corridors and wards. Cinematographer Yaron Orbach, whose work beyond this I am not familiar with, is playing straight from the Cundey/Carpenter rulebook. We lose the lens flares, but the framing of the characters is immaculate and the freedom of movement within the location is sublime. Speaking of locations, it is interesting to note that Carpenter filmed The Ward in an abandoned building in Eastern State Hospital, Washington, that is situated right between a prison for the criminally insane and a hospital for the mentally insane – now that's how to get the appropriate mood before the cameras! Brad Anderson did something similar with his own bedlam-set chiller, Session 9, a good few years ago, to startling effect. Carpenter has dressed the place up, of course, but there is an unmistakable air of institutionalised authenticity to the environment. It feels real. And, musically, we are on the sort of turf that fans will know and love from the good old days. Composer Mark Kilian is relatively unknown, although he did supply fine scores for Rendition and Traitor, but he is applying the sort of soundscape to The Ward that recalls the darker, more menacing textures that Carpenter and Alan Howarth so keenly brought to the early classics of Halloweens 1-3 and the colourfully dense moods of Big Trouble In Little China and Prince Of Darkness, with lots of ominous swells and pulsating ambience. Also worthy of note is the marvellous title sequence that feels like a nod to Hitchcock and those captivating animated credits from Saul Bass – glass shatters in slow-motion and the shards cascade over sepia-tinted photographs culled from vintage asylums. It sets the tone, all right. Oh, and just have a gander at the animated logo for the film's distributors “A Bigger Boat” - you've just gotta love that!

    I love what Carpenter did with The Ward. He exudes a cool and controlled command over the proceedings and he creates some terrific and often bravura set-pieces. His attention to mood and to character is remarkable. He has proved that he can handle intense situations and ensemble casts many times in the past, most notably in The Thing, and The Ward plays very closely to such intricately measured devices. You really care about the characters and become quite engrossed in the story despite that nagging feeling that you’ve been here before. He even reveals a distinctly intuitive side when he has his estranged female cast indulge in an impromptu 60’s shuck ‘n’ jive session to The Newbeats' Run, Baby, Run that totally does not foul up the escalating tension. Indeed, this is the sort of scene that could easily have had audiences shifting about awkwardly and possibly even have eroded any investment they might have had with the story, but Carpenter simply lets the camera roll and the girls, remaining totally in-character, to do their thing. In fact, it actually becomes one of the more immediately memorable images from the film. It is also reassuring to see another one of his early stylistic trademarks resurfacing – people viewing a black and white image. Seen in Assault On Precinct 13, the first two Halloweens, The Thing (with the retrieved Norwegian videotape) and in Prince Of Darkness, for example. There really is the impression that Carpenter has unlocked that old toy-box again.

    Now comes the difficult part … and it’s something that many reviewers would seek to avoid. But, being as I’m talking to genre fans and knowing that The Ward hinges upon something that many, many people are apt to get quite angry about – myself included a lot of the time – I feel that I must address it in the hope that I can, perhaps, allay some fears and rumours that may have circulated. Crucially, however, I must stress that some degree of spoilering will unavoidably occur – so, I advise that if you want to come to The Ward without any, ahem, suggested information, you skip the next paragraph altogether … and return to it only once you have seen the film.

    Entering Spoiler County. Please Proceed With Caution.

    We’ve all seen this type of movie before. The protagonist is caught in a vicious, spiralling mystery that really draws you in and envelops you. You’re on the edge of your seat come the climax, expecting either true vindication and resolve, and then the narrative suddenly pulls the rug from under you with what has to be the cruellest trick in the book. We’ve seen it in the likes of Identity (which The Ward mimics far too closely for comfort, I'll admit), Gothika,Shutter Island and even Dallas, and it is rarely worthwhile. You feel like you’ve been cheated and taken for a ride. Well, folks, The Ward definitely runs the risk of incurring such wrath with its conclusion. But, and this is extremely important, far from ruining the story, the shock twist here actually accentuates it, making it far more powerful and, get this, actually a different film second time round – and one that makes sense too, unlike those other examples which were just great conceptual ideas that the writers couldn’t find a logical or exciting way out of. Here, though, the twist is entirely essential to the plot and has a more relevant and personal touch. Identity has its fans … but I'm not one of them. I'd take The Ward any day.

    You Have Now Left Spoiler County. Come Back Soon.

    So, like we asked at the start … does this mark a return to form for John Carpenter, then?

    Well, The Ward is no classic, that's for sure. It doesn't have the verve or the long-lasting appeal of his phenomenal early string of 8 maybe 9 cult hits, but it is infinitely better put together and more consistently enjoyable than the often calamitous series of movies that he made from Prince Of Darkness onwards. I've covered an awful lot of his films on Blu-ray and certainly consider myself one of his greatest fans but I have said in the past that I doubted I would ever see another production title fronted by the once illustrious tag “John Carpenter's” that was worth sitting through. Although The Ward is hardly going to “shake the pillars of Heaven” it is evidence that the old master hippy still has a few tricks up his sleeve. After (long after, in fact) the excruciating mess of Ghosts Of Mars and the exceedingly poor Vampires, The Ward takes a few paces back, pauses for breath and just concentrates on getting the basics right. And, somewhere along the way, that old Carpenter magic begins to simmer. The old boy has, indeed, found his mojo. With the likes of John Landis and Joe Dante stabbing their way back into the genre with the more light-hearted productions of, respectively, Burke and Hare and The Hole, it feels right that Carpenter has returned too … and with the most assured and traditional offering of the bunch. In many ways we are lucky that he did stay away for such a long time. Can you imagine the sort of dross he may have been churning out if he hadn't gone away to cool off? It's something that Dario Argento should seriously consider doing too. If this is anything to go by, the rest has done him good and I truly hope that he's gotten the taste for it again.

    It's got its detractors all right (mostly those who cannot see past its similar identity to other genre movies), but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Ward to either chiller-fans or devotees of John Carpenter. It has that vintage look and feel of the Carpenter who used to rule the genre, and even if it falls some considerable way short of his acknowledged classics, it is still an extremely well made and highly atmospheric experience in its own right, and a movie that can certainly hold its zombified, electro-shocked head up high. But, most rewardingly and enticingly of all, it proves that the old master has still got what it takes and should, hopefully, be regarded as a case of directorial rehabilitation and a stepping-stone to better things on the horizon.

    Welcome home, John. It's good to have you back in the madhouse.