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Ward, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"John Carpenter's Latest is His Career-Worst"
1 stars

Those who've been waiting in greedy expectation for Carpenter's latest are going to be phenomenally disappointed, like awaiting a T-bone steak and getting a soggy Big Mac instead.

After an unfortunate nine-year hiatus from feature-length films since his critically-savaged Ghosts of Mars, I'd be more than pleased to report that director John Carpenter, horror maestro of such bona-fide classics as Halloween and The Thing, has returned to the silver screen with a vengeance with his new effort The Ward, but, sadly, this is far from the case. In fact, the movie isn't just unsuccessful but truly awful and incompetent and without a single good scene to its credit. After Mars (which, on a second viewing, I'm somewhat convinced was purposely sending up B-movies of its type), Carpenter managed to crank out two not-bad one-hour episodes in the Masters of Horror DVD series financed by the good folks at Anchor Bay Entertainment, but it's dumbfounding that he bided his time in finally selecting this absolute stinker of a screenplay by novices Michael and Shawn Rasmussen as some sort of comeback when its contextual value is about substantial and tantalizing as a grocery list. The story is set in North Bend, Oregon in 1966 where we're introduced to the seventeen-year-old character of Kristen who's just escaped from a mental hospital; scantily dressed in a hospital gown, she makes her way to an abandoned farmhouse which she sets on fire and stands in front of until the police arrive and arrest her. Apparently mute and in shock, she's then transported to the psychiatric ward of a hospital where she's placed on an isolated floor with four other teenage girls; the next day, she seems perfectly fine and alert and has no idea what she's doing there. Kristen tries convincing the staff doctor of her saneness even though she can't remember why she committed arson; not wanting to be rendered somnolent by medications, she fakes taking them and starts devising ways to escape, especially after catching fleeting glimpses of a rotted-corpse-looking figure that only herself seems to espy. All of this is in the first eighteen minutes or so, and already Carpenter has badly flubbed things in the most amateurish ways. The spatially-limited setting should have some architectural and atmospheric creepiness to draw us in much like a haunted-house setting should, but it's rendered almost antiseptic by Carpenter's impersonal craftsmanship that can never get any kind of a consistent rhythm going; the proceedings have neither the compression nor tautness of a horror movie, and the listlessness to the plain-Jane staging dissipates any semblances of suspense, which is fairly inexcusable being that Carpenter isn't exactly working with the most complex of material. It's a strictly by-the-numbers directing job that might be expected of a Hollywood hack cranking out a picture a year but not from someone who's been in limbo for so long. And, again, the story premise is so shopworn and stale that we can't help but wonder why the hell Carpenter responded to it in the first place, and what on earth he thought he could bring out of it that would validate his participation. (Did he lose a coin toss with a malicious studio exec who wanted to see him fall flat on his face?)

The remainder of the running time is just as enervating, and the audience couldn't be more nonplussed at all the cockamamie contrivances. Either Kristen is trying yet again at unsuccessfully escaping or more flashes of the non-frightening phantom figure keep popping up or one of the girls is subjected to a painful, lethal demise at the hands of it ranging from impalement with an orbitoclast tool to ultra-high levels of electric shock. Carpenter's basically attempting a high-minded slasher movie with psychological undertones that don't coalesce and come to anything; and the few things you do manage to pick up on aren't particularly well followed through on -- there's some hint at the barbarism of harsh psychiatric techniques back in the day, but the tailend of that slips right through Carpenter's fingers and we're left to assume that the only real reason for the 1966 setting is that the security measures were sans high-tech computers so getting out of a locked room and wandering freely through the corridors at night would be plausible. Even in some of Carpenter's previous efforts that didn't quite come off (In the Mouth of Madness, The Fog) or just downright sucked (Prince of Darkness, They Live) you could still sense semblances of imagination and intelligence at work; here, as quite the polar opposite of his tense and terrific Assault on Precinct 13 that also had a limited setting (a recently-abandoned police station), it's as if he'd never made a movie before, like a first-year film student who'd just changed his major and hadn't seen a movie before in his life (or any successful movies of this genre). Gone is his instinct for acute widescreen composition and bravura visual intelligence -- this is one of the flattest-looking cinematic efforts I've seen in quite a while -- as well as his sense of humor, which can be a real kick when he's accentuating the trashier aspects of a workable screenplay. Rather than being naughtily enjoyable by the likes of Hospital Massacre and Bad Dreams, The Ward is more in the cheerless, low-grade class of Visiting Hours and Room 6 (and the Carpenter-scripted Halloween II wasn't any great shakes, either, but at least you didn't come out of it zombified from sheer boredom). Dramatically it's dead weight, too, due in large part to Amber Heard's stiff, uncommunicative lead performance. She just doesn't take to the camera well, and her growing terror never seems real enough -- it's as if she were just your average high-school student going down the hallways trying to find her senior thesis that dropped out of her locker. The only acting that has any distinctiveness is Jared Harris' as the psychiatrist. (It also helps that this solid British actor has a wonderful voice.) And topping things off is a puerile twist ending that can be foreseen a few zip codes away and is a blatant lift from the asinine Identity from seven years prior. Here's hoping Carpenter's next effort is something a bit more of an aesthetic improvement and more frightening, like a Michelle Bachmann campaign ad.

Check out Carpenter's two entries in the 1993 guilty-pleasure horror anthology "Body Bags" as a way better alternative.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21407&reviewer=327
originally posted: 07/13/11 19:19:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/14/14 mr.mike Ok cable watch. 3 stars
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  DVD: 16-Aug-2011


  DVD: 16-Aug-2011

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