Thursday, October 27, 2011

"John Carpenter's" The Ward

Grade: 25 (D+)

The Ward was originally going to be included as a capstone to the Director’s Spotlight series on John Carpenter. The focus in the series was mostly on Carpenter’s creative peak from the mid-70s to the late 80s, but what better way to end than with Carpenter’s first film in over ten years? Even a lousy film could glean some interesting answers to what makes a good Carpenter film and what makes a bad Carpenter film. No dice, in this case. The film in question is not interesting enough for more than a regular review. Why? Because if not for the fact that the film’s full title is John Carpenter’s The Ward, there would be no indication, absolutely none, that this is a John Carpenter film.

Kristen (Amber Heard) burns down a house and is sent to a mental institution. She firmly believes she is not crazy, and that Dr. Stringer (the always welcome Jared Harris) is not to be trusted. There, she meets four other girls, distinguishable only in their one-dimensional character traits: Emily (Mamie Gummer) is a loopy, strong girl; Sarah (Danielle Panabaker) is vain; Zoey (Laura-Leigh) is childlike; and Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca) is kind. Truly memorable characters. Anyway, some ghoul is stalking the girls throughout the hospital. If the girls acknowledge the monster, the doctors will think they’re crazy and not release them. If they don’t, the ghost will kill them. One by one, the girls are picked off until only Kristen remains, and it all leads up to a shocking revelation that is shocking to absolutely no one.

So…where to start? There’s…some purpose to the characters being so thin, but it doesn’t make for very compelling viewing. And since none of the characters have any real definition beyond one trait (Heard’s protagonist included), none of the actresses make much of an impression. The premise of a haunted hospital is a decent idea for a horror film. Too bad that this premise has been exploited several times before by stronger films, including Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom and Brad Anderson’s Session 9, two films that had the advantage of a genuinely eerie location (a real, abandoned hospital in Session 9’s case).

The twist, meanwhile, isn’t handled too terribly, but it’s fairly clear that not everything is what it seems (except to anyone who’s ever watched a horror movie ever). The twist, and the feeling of mistrust towards the doctors, are reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s infinitely better film Shutter Island. But where in that film a not-entirely-plausible plot was made up for with memorable characters and performances, a haunting exploration of guilt and the violence in men, and above all else passionate filmmaking, The Ward is dull because of thin characterizations, no purpose outside of making another “scary movie”, and some of the most lifeless direction of Carpenter’s career.

Where are the spooky tracking shots? Where’s the use of the killer’s perspective, or anyone’s perspective for that matter? Where’s the moody, evocative Carpenter score (the provided score sounds like every horror movie score ever)? Where are the strong, memorable characters? Carpenter didn’t write this script, but he didn’t write The Thing either, and his stamp on that is unmistakable. Every scare in this film, meanwhile, is taken right out of every lame horror movie of the past ten or twenty years. There’s a build-up to a scare, no scare, then count to five before there real scare happens. Why would Carpenter make something so frustratingly dull and generic after taking a decade off from feature filmmaking? Perhaps he could learn a lesson or two from watching some old John Carpenter films.

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