Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New Carpentry: THE WARD

This is the first in an intermittent ongoing series in which I'll be catching up with some films from 2011 as we begin the end of the year.

An insane asylum can be a great setting for a horror movie, especially one doubling as a period piece. Straitjackets can be creepy enough, but when you add jolts of painful electroshock therapy and sharp, swift lobotomies, the whole atmosphere of the place is downright threatening. Rarely are we relieved of these threats, put in the shoes of the doctors and nurses. We’re always right there with the inmates, struggling against the ever-present struggle between sane and insane.

This is the location of The Ward, John Carpenter’s return to the big screen after a decade of absence. Once upon a time – the 70’s and 80’s – he made with great classicism and terrific style some of the most memorable horror films around with Halloween and his remake of The Thing, even his silly-but-creepy killer car flick Christine. The Ward isn’t exactly a return to form, it’s not good enough for that, but it’s still refreshing to see him working again.

A fine group of young actresses portray the inhabitants of the 1960’s ward that serves as the film’s claustrophobic setting. As the story begins, a runaway turned arsonist (Amber Heard) is carted into the place deeply convinced of her sanity. The other girls (Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, and Lyndsy Fonseca) are sure she’s crazy, just like them. Why else would they all be here? They sit under the stern, watchful eye of clich├ęd mental hospital employees, the stern nurse (Susanna Burney), the brutish orderly (D.R. Anderson), and the mysterious doctor (Jared Harris). It’s awfully strange that the inmates seem to be disappearing one by one at the hands of a ghost and the staff doesn’t want to talk about it. Creepier and creepier.

Unlike his earlier work, Carpenter has less of a sole responsibility for this film, serving as only director, working from a screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen. As director, he brings his precise visual sense. It’s not as refreshingly classical as one might hope. He amps up some of the moments with some of the standard visual tricks and gimmicks of modern horror. The camera moves more than his past work, but the editing within the shots often remains refreshingly restrained and tightly controlled.  When the camera does slow down, even stops, there are impressively static compositions that allow characters to move within them. A scene in the common room of the ward in which the girls decide to bounce around to a record playing gains a quiet tension through the patience with which it unfolds. On it’s surface, the scene has no overt scares, but it has a sneaky build beneath the ordinary.

It’s a movie that works best in moments like those, when the ordinary operations of the ward are allowed to simply happen. A patient coolly refusing her medication, a doctor calmly discussing therapy, inmates sitting around talking, these simple moments become the stuff of creeping unsettling. When the ghost shows up, it’s often the kind of gotcha jump scares that caused my heart to leap but then almost immediately settle down, as I felt a small measure of sheepishness for falling for such tricks. That’s the essential nature of the film, scary in the moment but it just doesn’t stick. For all its patience, it’s also kind of predictable. And that twisty conclusion’s a bit of a cheat isn’t it? I hope this is an example of Carpenter stretching his artistic muscles, getting back into the kind of shape that will lead him to once again direct a great film. This is more or less a good B-movie (more like a B-minus), but in the end it’s as inconsequential as it is promising.

The Ward is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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