I am biased about this film, but not for the reasons you'd think. (*)
I'm just biased as a fan of John Carpenter's work. I have very strong opinions about what I like and what I don't like from his filmography, and this weekend, you'll hear those opinions in a special podcast I recorded here at the Toronto International Film Festival with Cinematical editor Scott Weinberg, who is also the film critic for FEARNet. We spent an hour talking about every one of John Carpenter's 17 theatrical motion pictures, from "Dark Star" to "Ghosts Of Mars." Because we recorded it in the wee small hours of Sunday night/Monday morning, we had not see his latest yet. If we had, it might have made for a great conversation, and an optimistic ending to the retrospective, since "John Carpenter's The Ward" is a genial, entertaining ghost story, featuring a strong cast, a great environment, and some genuinely scary sequences. Is it a new masterpiece from the master? Nope. It's not personal enough for that to even be a possibility But it's character-driven, it's a slow-burn, and when the big reveal finally comes, it's not particularly fresh, but it's also not a cheat. It makes sense in the context of everything else we've seen in he film. I was relieved to be enjoying the film, but not surprised. This may not be an "OMG! Forget about 'The Thing'!" moment, but neither is it an "OMG! Remember 'Village of The Damned'?!" moment, either.
"The Ward" tells the story of Kristen (Amber Heard), a girl who is picked up by the police outside of a house she's just burnt down. She's taken to a mental hospital where she's placed under the supervision of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), who is known for his work with adolescent girls with emotional difficulty. He is determined to help her, and the film is smart enough to play his motives ambiguous. Kristen meets the other girls on the ward, each of them saddled with their own issues. Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Emily (Mamie Gummer), and Zoey (Laura-Leigh) may be types, but where this movie succeeds while something like "It's Kind Of A Funny Story" fails is in making us believe that these are people who are actually damaged enough to be in a hospital ward. Mamie Gummer bears a striking resemblance to her mother, Meryl Streep, and she gives perhaps the most dedicated performance in the film. Her Emily is the one who is constantly pushing buttons, testing everyone else, trying to see if she can cause blow-ups. Each of the girls makes a strong impression, and Carpenter manages to do a nice job of creating a sense of community among them.
Again, I hate to keep coming back to another film like I'm just taking shots at it, but when you see two movies set in mental hospitals during the same film festival and one of them fails completely for you as a viewer, you start to consider what it is that one gets right and the other doesn't. For me, it's reality, and I hate the artificial flights of fancy in "Funny Story," including a big musical number that starts out as a real moment happening in the hospital. In "The Ward," there's a moment where the girls are playing a record and they all start to dance, one by one, until they're all silently sharing the frame, each of them having a private moment with the music while still keenly aware of the other girls in the room, and it struck me as very real, a type of release for these girls who are so tense around each other, so scared of what's going on but unable to discuss it. In both films, the filmmakers try to use a bonding moment involving music, but in one, it goes over-the-top and fake, and in the other, it stays real, believable in the world of the movie we're watching. Understated.
That's probably the best word for what Carpenter's done here. Understated. The film is very much an old-fashioned ghost story, and Alice (Mika Boorem), the phantom presence in the ward, is an old-fashioned vengeful spirit. Why she's after revenge and what that revenge ultimately symbolizes is the meat and potatoes of the script by Michael Rasmussen & Shawn Rasmussen, and it's a solid if familiar twist that things eventually build to. We've seen this played out in other films, and it's never as mind-blowing as it's meant to be, but the film never cheats in order to get to that ending. It's interesting that, like "Insidious," this could easily be released as a PG-13 without any editing. Carpenter has always been more interested in scares than gore, and "The Ward" is firmly in that tradition. In terms of visual stylization, you'll recognize some of the Carpenter touch, and the film is in the 2.20:1 semi-scope that comes from shooting wide-matte and then altering it for the theatrical release. It's not the glorious John Carpenter uber-widescreen from his heyday, but his eye is just as able as ever in terms of composition.
Does this redefine Carpenter's status as a horror icon? Nope. But it does offer firm proof that the director's been re-energized, and perhaps the next time out, he'll be working with material that pushes him further, hopefully resulting in something that innovates rather than just demonstrating a general knack for the art of the scare. For now, "The Ward" is still hunting for a distributor, but I have a feeling it's just a matter of time until we see Carpenter back in theaters.
* - For the record, I wrote two episodes of the Showtime/Anchor Bay production "Masters Of Horror,' and both episodes were directed by John Carpenter.
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