Sep 4, 2012

IT AIN'T THAT BAD: THE WARD

In this column, movies with less-than-stellar reputations are fairly and objectively defended. Full disclaimer establishes that said movies aren’t perfect, and aren’t close to being such, but contain an undeniable amount of worth that begs you for a second chance. Films chosen are based on their general reception by both critics and audiences, more often than not falling into the negative. Every film, no matter how dismal, has at least one good quality. As they say, it ain’t that bad. 

Spoilers abound.



Listen, after 2001’s Ghost of Mars, John Carpenter’s previous theatrical feature, we all wanted to love The Ward. We wanted it to be worth the ten-year wait. After all, it was directed by a living legend who has been consistently five years too early for all the concepts he's introduced to the genre. Many of his most heralded films received lukewarm-to-middling reviews at the time of their release, but slowly and steadily began to be recognized for the genius (or just downright fun) little tales of beautiful nastiness that they were. Halloween received ho-hum reviews for several months until a positive one by The Village Voice turned it all around. The Thing, now rightly hailed as a classic and a defining moment in the horror genre – having inspired filmmakers as diverse as Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo Del Toro, Eli Roth, and so many others – was vilified upon its release. Critics called The Thing a porno of violence and accused Carpenter of filling his movie with irredeemable set pieces. 
David Ansen of Newsweek called it "an example of the New Aesthetic - atrocity for atrocity's sake" while Alan Spencer for Starlog contended that "John Carpenter was never meant to direct science fiction horror movies. He's better suited to direct traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings" (IMDB).
Despite his consistent post-Thing filmography, Carpenter openly states that his remake of the Howard Hawks 1951 classic nearly destroyed his career. It forced him on a path to grin and bear safer studio projects before fleeing back into the world of independent filmmaking, thanks to a distribution-only deal with Universal (which resulted in both Prince of Darkness and They Live, both considered among the master’s best).


So, the question remains: How will The Ward be looked upon in ten years from now? Will people’s general indifference and disappointment toward it subside? Will it be elevated and looked at with a new pair of eyes? Well, considering the director’s own and aforementioned Ghosts of Mars is still considered the dung pile most said it was in 2001, the jury can and will be out on that for the next decade.

But here’s the thing about The Ward, people. It ain’t that bad. It really, really isn’t. Yes, the script could have been stronger and a bit more unique. And yeah, it would’ve been nice to have a better twist ending than, “oh, she’s a crazy split personality.” Many negative reviews for the film have pointed to the script as the main reason for the film’s failure. And I will not sit here and try to convince you otherwise. No, the script is not very good. It's a convoluted amalgamation of J-horror, typical slashers, a bit of the ol' torture porn, and psychological thrillers. But I really take offense to the claims that The Ward is point and shoot; uninspired looking and almost TV-movie in scope—that Carpenter’s ever-dependable look and feel were completely absent from the film.

Guys, when I read those claims, I really have to wonder what fucking movie it was you watched.


After the movie’s initial opening, in which we see Amber Heard’s Kristen fleeing through the woods after having burned down a house, we cut to the psychiatric institution where our characters are committed. And the camera slowly pushes down a long hallway, inches off the ground, as background music echoes off the wall. We’re not even five minutes in, people, and it sure feels like a fucking Carpenter movie to me.

Except for the director’s most unheralded movie, In the Mouth of Madness, he’s never made a movie that actually fucked with your mind—that showed you only pieces of the overall puzzle as you sat back and tried to make sense of it all. And that’s precisely what The Ward is: a puzzle, being slowly put together by Kristen. While the destination may be all-too-often traveled, at least the intent is to shock and surprise you.

As to the claims that the film lacks energy and enthusiasm from the director (one report actually had the audacity to claim he was directing the movie from his trailer), I can only point to the impromptu dance the girls share in the common area of the hospital. The sequence is directed with, at first, such an infectious sense of enthusiasm that you can’t help but smile as you see these girls trying to exorcise themselves of all the bad mojo hanging over their heads and just, for once, get some enjoyment out of life; and that’s of course before the scene quickly takes a turn for the worst, showing in brief, nearly-subliminal images the ghoulish face of the ghost that is haunting them all. It’s a new bag of tricks that Carpenter is trying out, and I, for one, welcome the change. Much as I’d like for him to consistently churn out the types of movies that he made in the ‘80s, well…that would be boring after a while, wouldn’t it? Don’t you want to see growth from your filmmakers? Don’t you want to see them leave their comfort zone and try something new (at least, new to them)? That's up for debate. He could announce tomorrow the long-mooted Escape from Earth and people’s boners would shoot through their computer screens, but he tried revisiting Snake Plissken once before, didn’t he? And that didn’t turn out all that great.

Plus, I could think of worse ways to spend 90 minutes than watching Danielle Panabaker run around in that Daphne-from-"Scooby-Doo" outfit.

"Mind if I titillate?"

Carpenter, his old age having caught up with him, is no longer the jack-of-all-trades he used to be.  Instead of editing, writing, producing, scoring, and directing, he has, in recent years, opted only to go with the latter, leaving everything else up to his colleagues. And yes, that has changed (not destroyed) the look and feel of his films. But not in any way that makes them less deserving of our attention. They're different, but not inferior. They reflect a Carpenter in his golden age. They reflect a man who doesn't want to entirely throw in the towel, but just wants to make it a little bit easier on himself. He's put in the time, had his battles with studios (Universal) and ego-maniacal actors (Chevy Chase). He's earned the chance to take it easy. If we want to experience a great Carpenter screenplay, there's always Halloween, and if we're jonesing for an iconic score, there is always The Fog.

Speaking of music, Mark Killian's haunting, ethereal, and unusual score for The Ward picks up where Carpenter left off, who'd scored his previous (and probably last) film Ghosts of Mars. But Killian knows what makes Carpenter's music so effective: It's simple, to the point, but ever-present.

If nothing else, The Ward should be considered a potential conduit to getting Carpenter back behind the camera for more features. Apparently (and disappointingly) The Benders has been appropriated by Guillermo Del Toro, man of a thousand announced projects, and I don't know what's going on with Darkchylde, but Carpenter is ready and willing to get back behind the camera, should the circumstances be right.

Lazy script or not, inconsistent or not, The Ward brought our director back to us. For that, I’ll always be grateful.

2 comments:

  1. I hope he keeps working. I think the Ward was a good way to dust himself off and get back out there.

    Awesome.

    ReplyDelete
  2. For me he directed the movie well. He has so much talent. Hope to see more of him.

    ReplyDelete