JULY 9, 2011
How awesome is John Carpenter? The dude has his own font, that's how. When the top part of the title John Carpenter's The Ward appears on-screen, it's instantly recognizable as the one from many of his other films, and it actually inspired a cheer among many in the bigger-than-expected crowd. See, I thought I might be the only one there, because for some reason that can only make sense to AMC and Arc Entertainment (the only theater chain showing the film and its distributor, respectively), the 9 screens showing the all but completely unadvertised film are only doing so once a day, around 5 o'clock, hardly prime time for a horror flick.
Anyway, the font is sadly one of the few signature Carpenter touches in the film. He has thankfully ditched Gary Kibbe, and the look of new DP Yaron Orbach is a bit more in line with the Cundey-shot films of yore at time, particularly in the early, atmospheric establishing shots of the hospital and the rooms where most of the film takes place. But otherwise, even with a few seeming homages to his own films (Prince of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness in particular), it lacks that true Carpenter feel. Perhaps it's the lack of Panavision, or a SINGLE "old friend" in the cast (why wasn't Peter Jason the dad!?), or the fact that the score (not by Carpenter) sounds more like Suspiria than anything else, but whatever the reason, I think it's best to think of this more as a traditional modern horror film than "The first John Carpenter film in a decade!".
Because really, the worst thing about it is that it's just sort of average. We meet our five female leads, led by the awesome Amber Heard, and then a murderous ghost picks them off one by one over the course of 88 minutes with credits. Nothing more, nothing less. One might wonder why this is the movie that John chose to come back with, but if you think of his career as a whole and also listen to him talk for more than 5 minutes, I think it makes perfect sense. He's always had an aversion to repeating himself (Escape From LA works a lot better if you think of it as a giant "Fuck you" to the idea of sequels; whether that was the intent I have no idea but it's certainly a fun theory), and I'm sure most of the scripts he gets are things that seem like what he'd done before. But while there are certainly basic elements that are in line with older films (particularly The Fog, with a ghost seeking revenge and what not), he's never really dealt too much with psychological horror, and it's been nearly 30 years since his last film with teenaged protagonists (Christine).
It's also his first "twist" movie, and as with all twists it can make or break your enjoyment of the film. I had it partially spoiled for me by some goon on Twitter who pointed out another movie that had more or less the same twist (I won't name it but you can click HERE to find out if you're that interested), but in a way maybe that actually helped me enjoy the film. Knowing more or less how it turned out, I was able to forgive the thin character development on the other girls (we never really know what they are in for, how long they've been there, etc), and also the seeming plot hole of why the girls keep disappearing and no one else seems to be too concerned. I'm sure the psychiatrically minded audience members will take issue with the depiction of the particular mental disorder (even I know one aspect of the explanation is ludicrous), but as long as you're not taking any of it too seriously I think you'll dig it, and if nothing else might inspire you to re-watch the film a 2nd time (unless you hated it up until then as well).
And, let's face it, a movie filled with hot girls is hardly a bad way to spend 88 minutes. Amber Heard is a wonderfully fearless actress; it's not her most glamorous role, and gives it her all in the many scenes where orderlies or cops are trying to subdue her. I am entirely convinced she could easily kick my ass in real life - someone give her a comic book heroine role, pronto! Also on board are Danielle Panabaker and Lyndsy Fonseca, the latter of whom isn't in the film nearly enough in my opinion. One of the movie's less successful attributes is that it's actually a period piece, set in the 60s, but you'll probably often forget that since the ward set is rather bland, and simply throwing an old TV in their rec room doesn't quite sell the idea that this is 40-50 years ago (I wouldn't expect a small institute to have a 70 inch plasma HDTV, you know?). But the other girls (particularly Panabaker) nail the "look" from that period (much more so than Heard, to be honest).
It's a bit too jump scare heavy though. The ghost pretty much only appears right before a kill (or an attempt at one), and thus nearly every scare in the film is based around "Alice" suddenly appearing behind one of the girls or lunging from a doorway or something. Additionally, for a movie called The Ward they don't really give it much of an identity; if you look at something like Session 9, the place looks/feels creepy on its own, even without the characters/ghosts. No such luck here, and I never quite got a grasp on the geography of the place either. Amber makes a few escape attempts, and it was never really clear on how the place was laid out, how far she was from freedom, etc.
But it more or less gets the job done. The script never really aspired to be more than a fun little ghost/psychological blend, and even in his prime I'm not sure Carpenter (or anyone else) would have been able to elevate it into classic status. The super-harsh reviews I've read sort of baffle me; it's like getting angry at a Bud Light for not being the greatest beer you've ever had in your life or something. I think Carpenter's long absence from the screen, coupled with the fact that a lot of reviewers are seemingly forgetting that there's a lot of ground to cover between A+ and F, is hurting the film more than its pitiful theatrical release. It's not a great movie, but it's an enjoyable one, and the lack of ambition didn't really bug me. I've already seen an ambitious "hot girls in a mental institution" movie this year, and it was an obnoxious and repetitive bore. I prefer this simple roller-coaster version.
Note - if you're an LA reader, I have to warn you - the Broadway Cinemas 4 (the only LA theater showing the film) is one of the worst I've ever seen that charges full price (12 dollars). For starters, there was no soundproofing, so you could hear people talking in the lobby throughout the movie. The seats were uncomfortable and offered no legroom whatsoever, made worse by the fact that they employed the "cupholder on the back of the seat in front of you" system that has never made the least bit of sense to me. And worst of all, the door was parallel to the screen, so whenever someone opened it, sunlight would beam directly onto the image (something that wouldn't be a problem if they were showing the damn thing at night instead of the middle of the afternoon). The popcorn tasted like shit too but I will be optimistic and assume that's not always the case. In short, if you are like me and absolutely must see all John Carpenter films on the big screen, be prepared for a very sub-par theatrical experience. Everyone else, as much as I would like to see the film do as well as possible during this aborted theatrical run, I would advise you to use VOD or wait for the DVD, as there is no reason to support this theater that should be charging no more than 2-3 bucks for what they offer.
What say you?