Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Ward

The Ward (2010)
Dir. John Carpenter
Written by Michael and Sean Rasmussen
Starring Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Jared Harris

After watching (what I thought was) Wes Craven’s most recent effort MY SOUL TO TAKE (turns out I forgot about SCREAM 4 completely), I figured I’d even the score by giving John Carpenter an equal chance to humiliate himself by trying some weirdo plot about Ice Cube fighting Martian Indians or something. Unlike Craven, Carpenter has worked only sporadically since the 90s, directly only two films since 1996’s ESCAPE FROM L.A. One was GHOSTS OF MARS, which, boy, just an inexcusably awful execution of what you would think would be a can’t-miss idea. And the other was this one.

I’ll admit, I was pretty worried about this one. I mean, Carpenter has not always been the most consistent director, but when things line up he makes some of the best genre movies ever put to celluloid, period (THE THING, HALLOWEEN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THEY LIVE, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13). And when he’s off, he still tends to make things which don’t quite work perfectly but are still full of amazing, fun, memorable stuff (PRINCE OF DARKNESS, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, VAMPIRES, ESCAPE FROM L.A.). But then GHOSTS OF MARS, man. Just nothing at all about that movie works. On paper, it looks great. Ice Cube playing a badass antihero named Desolation Williams? Pam Grier gets her head cut off and stuck on a pike by weird elves who are possessed by the spirits of ancient Martians? They decide to kill the ghosts with a nuclear explosion? Featuring the song “Love Siege” by Buckethead and John Carpenter with Anthrax? How could that possibly not even be entertaining?

So, I was worried for THE WARD, which does not even sound good on paper. It's about a gal (Amber Heard) in a vaguely 80’s looking 1966 gets sent up to a psych ward, and there’s a ghost there and she has to uncover the mystery of why. That just sounds like an unimaginative blend of all the most rote horror movie cliches at once. If he was gonna combine a premise this lazy with execution as shoddy as GHOSTS OF MARS, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able stand watching such a great director sink so low.

Boy, Blonds really do have more fun

Fortunately, that didn’t end up being the case. The movie is competently directed, pretty well acted (not always Carpenter’s strong suit, so a nice surprise) and generally not at all embarrassing. He does pretty well with the material, making it look pretty, assembling a good cast, doing a neat little effect on the ghost where her veins are visibly pulsating, like her blood vessels are filled with marbles. He didn’t write the score this time, but he did hire a guy who writes a score that sounds like a generic version of something he would write.

But unfortunately the premise is exactly as boring as it sounds. It’s almost all set in the two hallways and one rec room of the psych ward (but never makes use of its claustrophobic potential), has only a few characters, only one ghost, a completely standard-issue murder mystery, a generic backstory structure, a goofy, cliched twist at the end. There’s nothing wrong with it, as far as silly nonsensical ghost stories go, but it’s so utterly lacking in imagination and color that it barely even exists. There’s a pervading sense of “why bother?” with this whole story. Every single narrative beat is so threadbare that you can hardly believe it’s really going to be so lazy. Surely this is trying to lull us into thinking it’s this unimaginative, only to yank the rug out from under us with some strange twist on the formula? Nope. Not one single thing that happens turns out to be interesting or unexpected. There are no compelling little details which pay off later, no funny parts or scary ideas. It’s one of those movies that when you see the ghost, it just punches you. Nothing more primal than fear of being punched by a ghost, guys. You really tapped into something there.

Ghosts, always in the last place you look.

Still, the movie’s watchable enough. One thing I did like: The depictions of the five mentally ill inmates of THE WARD is surprisingly subtle and realistic for this genre. Nobody is rocking back and forth gibbering about Napoleon or Jesus, in fact they mostly seem pretty normal until something unexpected or upsetting comes up, and then you see them suddenly start to act a little “off”. Nothing major, but just the wrong inflections, or taking the wrong message from a simple conversation, or responding in a way which seems a tiny bit out-of-synch with the situation, or making weird, bad choices. That last one is common to most characters in this genre, but at least here their mental illness seems better defined and so the bad decisions seem more of a natural extension of their inability to think through situations properly. All the female actors do pretty good work to make their characters seem nuanced and real, which is particularly made difficult by the fact that they’re all basically glamorous model-types and extremely little effort is put into making them believable as grungy psych ward inmates. That’s a pretty unbelievable situation, so the fact that I believed in them as characters is testament to the actresses’ work and Carpenter’s direction. Beyond the women, I like the always-reliable Jared Harris (THE ETERNAL KISS OF THE MUMMY) as the head psychiatrist here. He’s the authority figure, so of course he’s basically the crusty old dean in an 80’s comedy, the object of oppression that the girls must defy. But he doesn’t play the part like a sadist, he actually seems like a nice guy who is trying to do a good job. I don’t think he knows that he’s the villain.

Amber heard has the arms-strait-out middle school dance form down perfectly.

Those factors tend to be the least important ones in a horror movie, but I have to admit they must have kind of worked here because by the end I actually did sort of care about Amber Heard’s “Kristen” enough that I was hoping things would work out well for her. I was investing in the story because I cared about the characters, even though the events of said story in themselves are pretty punishingly whitebread. The twist which comes at the end is lazy, derivative and [vague SPOILERS] in a lot of ways negates most of the movie which came before it, but it was maybe almost worth it for the final shot of the film, which, at long last, finally offers a hint of a clever variation on a shopworn horror staple. And [increasingly specific SPOILERS] anyone else wonder if, given the twist, “writers” Michael and Sean Rasmussen are actually some kind of multiple personality Charlie and Donald Kaufman-style imaginary twins? Maybe THE WARD is actually the movie-within-a-movie that John Carpenter directed for the main show, a NEW NIGHTMARE-esque meta-horror about a shitty screenwriter with multiple personalities who, unbeknownst to himself, is also a serial killer of great genre director’s careers via his other personalities, who each write separate lazy ass horror screenplays under their own names as a way of eliminating each other and merging the personalities into one self-actualized mediocre hack? Now that might be a movie worth Carpenter’s talents.

I should have mentioned, there's a dance scene. Now that I think about it, this movie could have been set in a sorority with only minimal changes.

  • SEQUEL: THE WARD 2: WARDERWORLD still stuck in development hell.
  • REMAKE: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Jared Harris was in LINCOLN, but probably doesn't count.
  • BOOBIES: Shower scene, but the coy "over the shoulder" kind
  • ENTRAILS? None
  • CULTISTS: None
  • ZOMBIES: Wikipedia calls the antagonist "zombie/ghost," but who are we kidding?
  • VAMPIRES: None
  • CURSES: No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Low. In theaters in 2010.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Yessir, she did

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