Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Ward - Theatrical Review

John Carpenter's

Release Date: July 8, 2011

There are very few films that I will travel far and wide to seek out. There are even fewer films that I would keep track of for an entire year until a firm release date was set. But when I learned that John Carpenter had a new movie coming out I found myself overwhelmed with childhood anticipation for what one of the true masters of the horror genre had in store for me. Was it worth the wait though?

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 4 Loews Santa Monica
Time: 5:15 pm July 9, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D

Loves: John Carpenter
Likes: Amber Heard, scary movies
Neutral: Twist endings
Hates: Scary movies that aren't very scary
Fact: This is the first film from John Carpenter in over 10 years.

John Carpenter was THE MAN back in the 80s. Hot off the heels of what many consider to be his horror masterpiece Halloween he then gave us a trifecta of Kurt Russell awesomeness with Escape From New York, The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China. Amidst those we also got to see a serious side of the director with Starman (and Jeff Bridges very first Academy Award nomination for best actor), some cheap horror thrills with Prince of Darkness (and also one of my personal favorites mind you) as well as some rather bad films with The Fog and Memoirs of an Invisible Man. His lesser works were never so bad they were unwatchable but they often straddled the line of being overly cheesy many times. His last film Ghosts of Mars was a misfire on all accounts with some bad effects, poor acting and a script that couldn't have been longer than a few pages. It was sad to think his legacy would come to an end on such a poor film.

It has been over ten years now since I have seen a new film from the legendary director and words cannot express how overjoyed I was when news reached me that he was finally stepping back into the directors chair once again.  Despite my enthusiasm for a new film from the director my gut instinct told me to be cautious. You see, not every director is capable of recapturing what is was they once did so well back in their prime so to speak...cough...George Romero...cough. It's not that I have lost faith in my once favorite director of all time (I owned all of his films on VHS as a teenager...even the bad ones), it's that I have seen too many other favorites fall victim to trying to keep up with the times. His new film The Ward is nowhere near as awful as the last couple Romero movies but it also isn't nearly on par with his past achievements either.

Kristen is welcomed into her new home at The Ward.

It is 1966 in the fine state of Oregon where we find a confused and half naked woman out in the middle of the countryside standing in front of a farm house she just set on fire. After being apprehended by the local authorities it doesn't take long for her to find her way to the local insane asylum which is affectionately called the ward. The young woman in question is Kristen (Amber Heard) and after being processed she quickly becomes acquainted with her fellow inmates. There is Emily (Mamie Gummer) the unstable one, Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca) the self appointed good girl of the group and aspiring artist, Zoey (Laura Leigh) the quiet one who is in touch with her inner school girl and finally there is Sarah (Danielle Panabaker) the slut and overall bitch of the bunch. Kristen doesn't waste any time trying to find a way out but she has other reasons to escape beyond her thirst for freedom. She soon finds that she is in a section of the hospital that has had a string of disappearances as of late that no one will or can answer. If she doesn't get out soon then she may just end up being the next girl that goes missing.

This is for all intents and purposes your typical ghost/thriller/horror story. All the necessary elements to make a successful scarefest are present and accounted for. Does it have a young, hot and vulnerable leading lady, check! Is she being haunted by some sort of spirit or ghost? check! Does it all take place in a creepy building with electrical issues that make the lights go out all of a sudden? check! Is there nobody that believes she is seeing ghosts? check! Do her friends start to die off one by one in all sorts of grisly manners? check! Is there a twist ending that makes you rethink everything that came before it? check! Most of all though does it scare the shit out of you? Ummm...not really.

Iris and the other girls are your everyday loonies.

As much as I would like to be the one to sings the praises for the return of the once formidable director, I cannot in good conscience put my seal of approval on this tepid yet endearing little bit of shock management. As you can see there is nothing missing from the puzzle, everything was in place to give us what I suppose was to be a homage or recreation of the films Carpenter and others from his ilk used to thrive on. It is really hard to put my finger on what exactly went wrong here since there didn't really seem to be anything wrong with the film itself as I sat in that dark theater waiting to be scared out of my mind.

It certainly wasn't anything having to do in the acting department. Amber Heard does very well in one of her first leading roles as the strong willed woman who beats down ghosts with a fire axe while screaming bloody murder. She didn't have to work hard to gain the audiences sympathy though due to her stunningly good looks (even locked up in a mental hospital she is alluring somehow) and the age old trick of making us hate the hospital workers so that we blindly cheer on the patient. The other actresses range from good to fair with none of them really given much to work with and most having to resort to stereotypical caricatures. The same goes for the aforementioned orderlies and nurses who are given the not so difficult task of being as inhuman as possible.

Something spooky lurks within The Ward.

The only other real performance in the film beyond Heard is that of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) who does an adequate job of playing the part of both friend and doctor to all the girls. The performances though are rudimentary at best due to this being a horror film. It is always nice to not be distracted by poor actors which Carpenter has been guilty of in the past but not here thankfully. I would have to say the script is mostly to blame for the lack of dimension in most of the characters but that is only true to a certain extent. When the big reveal happens near the end of the film most of the character motivations and why they are the way they are makes a certain amount of sense but even then it felt more like a cheat than a clever twist.

The main element missing from the film though is any sort of tension or fear factor. Whenever we are shown a dark hallway and the camera slowly starts to pan down it I couldn't help but think to myself that I should be feeling something at this point. I should be feeling some sort of dread or fear that something bad is about to happen. Whenever a character is standing profile to the camera and a shadowy figure appears in the background and with a movement of their head the figure is gone, I knew that a jump scare was coming from the foreground by either a sudden cut to a different angle or some sort of appendage was going to appear from off screen. Was I being a little to over analytical? Perhaps, but I also think that Carpenter was relying too heavily on tricks he used up back in his heyday.

Kristen hasn't been taking her meds.

So what does one say about a movie from one of their favorite directors of all time that fails to be what it set out to be? I have always been very forgiving when it comes to John Carpenter films just because I loved his style of filmmaking and his no holds barred approach to horror. He was never afraid to end his films by either killing off the main character or revealing that everything we just witnessed was essentially a giant mindf***. I appreciated his boldness and always loved that he never gave in to cliches of the genres he worked in. But The Ward feels like he finally caved in and gave us what we never wanted from him, a by the numbers and somewhat shallow frightfest that is short on the frights. As I watched it though it never really felt like a John Carpenter film which was probably what saddened me the most. Carpenter didn't even do the music for the film which has always been a staple of his with those low base hits in a rhythmic tone that always dug deep into my mind as a child of the 80s.

I don't mean to make it sound as though this is a bad film, that couldn't be any further from the truth. I am sure that people out there that aren't familiar with the man behind the camera will find plenty to like here. It is shot well, acted competently enough and does feature at least a few rather gruesome deaths that actually shocked me a little due to how completely detached they felt from the somber mood that pervaded the rest of the film. My main gripe with the feature is that after a long decade of waiting for a new film from Carpenter that I just wished he would have returned with something that resembled his older works or at the very least something new that had the same spirit. The Ward felt passionless from beginning to end, like everyone involved was on autopilot and just wanted to get it over with.

The hospital staff aren't very nice people.

Is the film a failure? Yes and no. It fails on a level that most might not even notice unless you are a huge Carpenter fan like myself (and I know they still exist because the near sold out crowd I saw it with cheered when his name appeared on screen). It also fails at being what it sold itself as, a scary horror film. I never felt scared or even felt the need to get tense. I winced at a few of the more bloody scenes and was happy to see the damsel in distress actually fight back near the end but those moments were fleeting at best. I cannot recommend you seek this film out during it's theatrical run which pains me to no end (not like you could find it anyway, it is only playing in one theater with one showtime in Southern California). I wanted to tell everyone that the master has returned and instead I have to tell them to keep waiting. Hopefully this wasn't a one time deal and he has some more (and better) films up his sleeve. Until that time I have to say that if you are curious and want to give The Ward a try then you are better off waiting for it to hit home video and...




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