Saturday, January 21, 2012

Film Review: John Carpenter's The Ward (2010)

Considering that John Carpenter had not made a film in nine years when he made The Ward, it doesn't really feel like he went away, primarily because his back catalogue has been so efficiently strip-mined in the intervening years. Starting with Assault on Precinct 13 in 2005, there has been a steady stream of remakes of Carpenter's seminal work from the '70s and '80s that has simultaneously burnished and cheapened his legacy as one of the great genre film-makers. Whilst some of those remakes turned out to be entertaining and functional (Assault on Precinct 13) and others wound up being dreadful, witless retreads (The Fog), none of them displayed the same sense of a personal vision that Carpenter's best work did, and his return to film-making following the utterly awful Ghosts of Mars should be cause for celebration.

Yet The Ward, rather than heralding the return of one of the true masters of genre cinema, feels less like a Carpenter film than a film made by someone trying to imitate Carpenter. In that respect, it feels like a natural contribution to the cottage industry of Carpenter remakes and knock-offs that has grown exponentially in the last decade, but it's a crushing disappointment considering that it was directed by the man himself.

Set in the 1960's - though it may as well be set on Alderaan for all the difference the period setting makes to the film; the only nod to the setting seems to be the casting of Jared Harris, the very embodiment of Britishness in the early part of the latter half of the twentieth century, slumming it between seasons of Mad Men as a mysterious doctor - the film starts when Kristen (Amber Heard) is institutionalised after she burns down a barn. Having been sent to an asylum, she discovers that something has been scaring other girls on her ward, and that 'something' is a malignant ghost who has been indiscriminately killing young female patients. Determined not to become another victim, Kristen starts trying to figure out how to escape with the other girls, but is she really who she thinks she is? No, no she isn't.

The reason why John Carpenter was and remains such a towering figure in the world of genre and exploitation cinema is that he spent the better part of two decades making films that were not only great horror, action or suspense films, but because those same films were also very personal works that expressed his views on film history or the world in general. The way in which he managed to combine elements of the films he grew up loving - such as his frequent homages to the work of Howard Hawks - into films that were distinctly his own is a masterclass in how a film-maker can create works that are both deeply felt and personal whilst also being hugely entertaining on their own terms.

From 1974 to 1988, John Carpenter was able to almost effortlessly create films that were both great genre exercises and distinct expressions of an individual vision, and his run of films from that time is almost unparalelled, and listing them sounds less like a rundown of one man's work than a list of genre classics: Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Escape From New York, Big Trouble In Little China. He even somehow managed to make They Live, a very entertaining alien invasion film which also doubled up as a critique of late-period capitalism and the grotesqueness of the American class system.

Considering his history, it's easy to see why The Ward fails as a film. Carpenter simply isn't interested in it, and it feels completely and utterly like a film that he made so he can get back into directing features, rather than one which he directed because he felt he had something to say. It doesn't help that the script by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen is riddled with cliches and the cast are uniformly boring, with even the usually dependable Harris struggling to make himself heard over the tedious drone of the story, but Carpenter is, or at least used to be, the sort of director who could inject life and wit into even the most pedestrian premise. If anyone could find a new angle on the "seemingly sane person is sent to an asylum and turns out to be not so sane after all" plot, Carpenter should have been the one to do so. Instead, he plays into every predictable turn, and despite a few scary moments, such as the scenes in which young women are tied to a chair and lobotomised in quite graphic fashion, and despite a certain basic level fo craft that is sorely lacking from a lot of horror cinema, the film never escapes the sense that everyone involved probably wished they were doing something else.

The problem of the film is best exemplified by its score. It has the same electronic hum that Carpenter's own scores in the '70s and '80s had, but it was actually composed by Mark Kilian. The rest of the film feels like a hollow rehash of Carpenter's better work, but somewhat tragically, it was actually directed by Carpenter, rather than some rank amateur trying to ape his style.

Grade: C