Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, May 10, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (2010)

21. The Ward

Ten years is a big gap between films. There has been a handful of unrealized announcements over the years: A Nicolas Cage action film. A cop thriller that was going to be both a movie and a video game. None of these came to fruition. For a long time, it seemed like John Carpenter was never going to direct another movie. And then, out of nowhere, “The Ward” was announced. By all accounts, those two “Masters of Horror” episodes got Carpenter interested in movie making again.

Sadly, the general reception for “The Ward” was lukewarm. The J-horror sounding premise and pretty girl cast didn’t exactly excite me from the beginning. So I went into the film with muted expectations. By the time I got around to seeing it, everyone knew this wasn't Carpenter's proud return to cinema. Ultimately, I kind of liked it, with a lot of reservations. Maybe it was just the low expectations. It’s far from the director’s best movie but not without its own charms.

The story is fairly unremarkable, the kind of thing we were seeing a lot of in horror through the last decade. A 1960s mental hospital full of skinny white girls has a dark secret. A vengeful ghost is haunting the titular ward and slowly widdling away at the cast of said skinny white girls. Kristen, the feisty new arrival, is determined to get to the bottom of things and has no problem challenging the sinister hospital staff, who are clearly in on things. It’s a sexy horror version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” practically.

More disconcerting then the unremarkable story is the movie’s over reliance on jump scares. There are a lot of them and they are all very loud. Constantly throughout the movie, things jump out of the corner of the screen, always accompanied by a very loud shriek on the soundtrack. It happens over and over again. Carpenter has proven to very skilled at creating a lingering atmosphere of dread. One of his movie’s relying so much on cheap, frankly annoying, jump scares is a bit shameful.

The movie has a general lack of the classic Carpenter style. Few of his trademarks are present. There’s a single tracking shot midway through. Unsurprisingly, it's one of the best scenes in the film, a joyous little dance number that shows the cast coming together in a realistic, unobtrusive way. Carpenter didn't even contribute to the score. Instead, Mark Kilian provides music that is forgettable when it isn't bashing you over the head.

Despite these problems, I found myself liking the characters. Each one of the girls, while potentially a cliché, still proves to be interesting. I’ve never been a fan of Amber Heard before. I usually find her tough girl act to be tiresome, but it works here. The authorities actually do seem to be up to something which gives her reason to struggle. She is quickly position as the strongest of the girls and becomes their protector, giving her a good reason to struggle. Moreover, Heard plays nicely off the other girls. Eventually, a real sense of sisterhood forms among the cast.

Lyndsy Fonseca as the bookish Iris was probably my favorite. She’s definitely the friendliest of the girls, the first one to open up to Heard. However, she can't mask her nerves and anxiety, adding depth to both the character and the performance. I also liked Mamie Gummer as Emily. She’s also a deeply neurotic character but instead covers her insecurities with a stand-off-ish personality. Gummer successfully portrays someone whose defensive traits are just barely concealing a mental breakdown. She’s deeply protective of the other girls and doesn’t want to stick her nose in anything that will stir up problems. Danielle Panabaker as the slutty Sara and Laura-Leigh as the deeply traumatized, infantilized Zoey both have a lot less material to work with. However, both actresses do a good job with what they’re given.

The most notable thing the movie is that each girl manages to be memorable, likeable characters. “The Ward” is an ensemble movie the same way “The Thing” is. Deceit, suspicion, and paranoia threaten to tear the group apart but a strong leader and an outside threat makes them pull together, at least for a little while.

Once the countless jump scares finally stop, the movie manages to create a number of successful horror sequences. When the undead Alice, the vengeful ghost, stops just jumping out at people, and actually gets down to getting things done, the movie comes close to being creepy. When Alice appears, she drags the girls off and uses mental hospital equipment to do them in. The lobotomy probe and an electric shock therapy machine are frequently trotted out in order to disturb or shock the audience. While “The Ward” hardly uses them in new ways, the scenes themselves are at least effectively creepy. The shooting is tight and the editing is concise. Carpenter can still stitch together a decent horror moment, when he actually tries.

Honestly, the mixture of likable characters and some effective atmosphere got me to like the movie. As the film builds to its climax, as Kristen eventually finds herself the last girl standing, the movie builds up a decent pitch. The ghost is closing in and our heroine has to fight alone. This is classic stuff, right out of "Halloween." Nothing new or exciting, sure, but I was enjoying myself.

And then… The movie hits a brick wall in the form of an obvious, obnoxious twist ending. I’m beginning to wish that a movie could tell a tale about psychosis and multiple personality without delving to any cheap narrative trickery. Honestly, even then, I was giving this flick a lot of rope. I kept thinking, “Okay, movie, I’ll let you have your more-then-a-little-dumb twist ending, as long as you just go quietly and settle on a calm, emotional conclusion.” Nope. Here’s one more really, really stupid jump scare and: Credits. Sigh.

I’m not a Carpenter apologist. I don’t consider myself one anyway. “The Ward” legitimately charmed me in many ways. I don’t consider it a failure, even with obnoxious jump scares, a bombastic musical score, and a bad twist ending. Can a film have all of those things and still be enjoyable for the majority of its run time? I don’t know if this is the triumphant return to the screen we had hoped for from John Carpenter, but it’s not a bad return. Let’s hope his next film meshes better. [Grade: B-]

We had hoped "The Ward" would break the trend of John Carpenter getting attached to a project and then nothing coming of it. Nope. "Fangland," another vampire novel adaptation, was suppose to roll right after "The Ward." It didn't. "Darkchylde," an adaptation of some crappy nineties comic book nobody remembers or cares about, looked ready to go at one point and then... Nothing. Most recently, he's talked about wanting to turn the video game "Dead Space" into a movie. I'm not holding my breath.

And maybe that's for the best. I like the guy and, perhaps, I've given some of his later films a wider berth then most. But it's clear at this point that Carpenter is unlikely to produce another masterpiece, hope though we might. Maybe graceful retirement is a viable option after all.

That took a lot longer then expected. Why did it take me three months to finish up one report card? If you hadn't figured it out, it's because I started this before having all the reviews written. Turns out, that's not a great way to drive up my creativity. No more of that stupidity in the future. I won't start posting a Director's Report Card until I'm ready. Despite this, I do have some stuff in the bag. You'll see me again soon. I promise.

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