[review by Luisito Joaquín González Martín]
In these most bizarre of times when people sue each other for nothing more than breathing, I have decided to jump on the bandwagon. Yes, I'm suing John Carpenter. Why I hear you ask? Well ever since I saw HALLOWEEN (1978), I have been jinxed by a bizarre curse to relive that one time experience. That one night stand with pure terror that left me psychologically scarred and totally obsessed. Do you know how many thousands upon thousands of pounds I have spent tracking hard to come by slashers? Are you aware of the mega amount of hours I have wasted watching these and been thoroughly disappointed? It’s your fault Mr Carpenter. Why was your film so good?
It makes it even worse, when I think that I could have spent my teenage years doing what most kids currently do in London. You know, smashing bricks through shop windows, burning out cars, looting JD sports and fighting with riot Police. Actually, erm… hold on?
Ok so, I’m a massive fan of John Carpenter and quite possibly, HALLOWEEN is the best film that I have ever seen. I mean, how do you judge a good movie? Do you add merit for the level of performances, technicality or by the effect that it has on your persona? In all three of these categories, I can honestly say that Halloween blew me away. It changed my life and I feel that I am a better (but slightly twisted) man for it. Thing is, it’s an experience that I have never managed to have again.
Keeping this in mind, you can imagine how excited I was to hear that John Carpenter was returning to the horror genre after ten-years. I was almost orgasmic then, when I realized that in actuality this was Carpenter’s return to the category he defined: The slasher genre.
After a very exciting stalk and slash opening, we get to meet our protagonist. Kristen is arrested by local Police forces after torching a house in the middle of some woodland. She is immediately transferred to the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, where she meets four similar-aged female occupants. Despite being rather leisurely in terms of security, the asylum seems to have an eerie depth of mystery and Kristen, being the newest and most ambitious of the inmates is determined to get to the bottom of what’s goings on. Alongside the experimental treatments and the multitudes of bizarre pills, it seems that there is something far more sinister stalking the corridors of the institution and as the bodies begin piling up, it’s down to Kristen to see if she can escape alive.
THE WARD to be fair is not really a stereotypical slasher movie. I mean, not when you consider it’s from the director who wrote the rulebook on the genre. The plot walks the fine line between slasher and haunted house story, which is an amalgamation that has been attempted many times but never really succeeded. Whilst GIRLS SCHOOL SCREAMERS (1984), SUPERSTITION (1982), THE BOGEY MAN (1980) and BOARDING HOUSE (1982) are little more than utter trash; the flexible boundaries of both styles offer the opportunity for artistic creativity. Carpenter on his day is one of the most imaginative directors out there and at his best he can take an idea and a small budget and create a masterpiece.
With that said, there are many genre-trappings that keep things tight. The unseen killer stalking the corridors and the bogeyman only really visible in shadows for the first part is pure stalk and slash trademark and the kill scenes are all surprisingly gory and very typical of the category. Whilst Carpenter uses the daytime for characterization and building the mystery, it’s the night scenes when the movie really comes alive. A master of consistent anticipation and a technical genius when it comes to placing shots and using shadow play, there’s enough here to give audiences a few really well-built shocks. It’s the razor sharp looming direction, which utilizes a clever combination of flashing lights and spacious isolation (an effect very prominent in HALLOWEEN) that proves that the maestro hasn’t lost his mojo. Check the ventilation stalking sequence for an excellent example of protracted suspense and he pulls off a high number of impressive jump-scares.
Now slasher fans love cheese and to be fair, we are usually always given a healthy dose in every genre entry that we watch. Now I would argue tha tHALLOWEENwas too creepy to be cheesy. I mean, many may disagree and the fashions and dialogue (Lynda constantly mouthing, ‘to-tally’!) are goofy to watch nowadays. But the fromage frais was covered up by pure unadulterated horror, which meant it was largely ignored. Carpenter makes up for that here however with one inexplicable boogie-sequence that must’ve been filmed for laughs. I thoroughly enjoyed it to be fair.
Carpenter was always an actor’s director. Look no further than Jamie Lee Curtis in HALLOWEEN, Kurt Russell in ELVIS: THE MOVIE (1979) or almost everyone in THE THING (1982) to see that he works closely with his actors to get the best from them. There are some solid performances on display here, but I’d be interested to see if Amber Heard was his original choice for a lead. She ticks the boxes in terms of eye candy, but the film asks too much of her in terms of emotional portrayal. At no time does she ruin the feature, but an experienced eye will see that she struggles to reach the right emotional levels for a performance of this magnitude and she fails to convince on numerous occasions.
I cannot tell you the names of the films that this story imitates without giving away the conclusion, which to be fair, is one of the best things about the feature. I would not want to ruin that for you and so I can’t say too much. I will, however, mention that it’s a shame to see that John Carpenter, a one-time pace-setter and creator of clichés, is left to direct a movie that borrows heavily and then swims deeply amongst them. I appreciate that after the flop of GHOSTS OF MARS (2001), it is perhaps harder for him to get the backing of studios as he once would. But still, it is a hard tablet to swallow that one of my favorite directors of all time is offering a lower-budget imitation of a much bigger film, whilst at the same time lifting it’s ‘money-shot’ from another sharer of the category that it frequents. The script is the real culprit here, lacking a clear path to unravel the complexity of the conclusion and it’s left up to the director’s mastery of stylish visuals to lift the narrative from the clutches of mediocrity.
Carpenter himself admits that audiences haven’t understood his films of late and even though I still see him through those schoolboy-scared-shipless rose-tinted spectacles, he has to look no further than the mirror to see the real culprit in his rapid decline. Whilst PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987) was highly underrated, some of the efforts that have followed have been unrecognizable as work from a one-time master of suspense. Thankfully, THE WARD shows that the magic is still there and there’s a lot here to demonstrate that he still has some ammunition in his artistic repertoire cannon.
The biggest problem is that Carpenter, a director with a style and identity different from any other, has made a film that looks more like it’s someone else trying to be him than it is a piece of his work. Perhaps it’s the fact that he didn’t write the script? Or perhaps it’s the fact that it’s not his score? It could also be because he struggles to live up to the expectations that he himself set when was young and truly had the fire in his belly? It’s hard to be sure, but this is still some way off the best of his ability and almost feels like a stretch of the muscles and a warm-up after ten-years lost in the movie wilderness.
THE WARDlacks the constant dread of apprehension that his earlier efforts boasted and makes no effort at social commentary, which is unusual from such an intelligent horror enthusiast. But all in all, what we have here is a decent popcorn horror flick with enough in its locker to say that John Carpenter still has a few good films left in him. Let down by poor scripting and a plot that lacks constructive clarity; this is still an humongous leap forward and a step on the return to greatness from my favorite filmmaker
So what about my lawsuit? I’ll keep it on hold if Carpenter gives a few more of these…
female:5 / male:0
1) Female has neck broken by unseen assailant
2) Female has lobotomy needle pushed into eye socket
3) Female killed with electro shock therapy
4) Female has neck cut
5) Female killed offscreen