Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Ward (2010)

(Warning: there will be light spoilers you might want to avoid if you're planning on watching this one).

1966. Kristen (Amber Heard) burns down a farm house for reasons she can't or won't remember. She ends up in a rather peculiar ward of a mental institution under the supervision of one Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris). Since his style of treatment is somewhat experimental in its strange combination of the modern and the barbaric (good old electro shocks), Stringer only has a handful of patients beside Kristen, every single one of them a textbook archetype of a different construction of female identity - there's the "helpless little girl" Zoey (Laura-Leigh), the overtly sexual rich man's daughter Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), etc.

But something's not right at all in the ward - patients before Kristen have shown a tendency to disappear, never to be heard from again. Kristen gets her first hint at an explanation for the girls' disappearances in her first night in the institution. A rather dead looking girl enters her cell despite a locked door and plays grabs with her blanket.

The longer Kristen is inside the institution, the more aggressive the ghostly attacks become, and it doesn't take too long until the ghost makes a play for her life.

Kristen's reaction to the ghost is quite practical - it's existence is just another reason for her to try and break out of the ward as soon as possible, taking her co-patients with her. But all attempts at escape seem to end up making things worse. The ghostly enemy becomes stronger, more aggressive, and begins to kill the girls off one by one. Eventually, Kristen will have to learn the truth about who the ghost is and why it want to kill her and everyone else from her co-patients who might not be as innocent about what's happening to them as they seem. And even then, our heroine still has to understand what's happening to herself now has to do with her own burning down of the farm house, before things can turn out for the better.

A lot of people online seem to be pretty down on John Carpenter's return to long form film The Ward, but I don't think I agree. Admittedly, the film at hand is not as great as Carpenter's best films, but expecting the guy to produce a Halloween, a The Thing or a In the Mouth of Madness every time he steps behind the camera seems patently unfair to me - I'm perfectly fine with a movie like this that knows what it is, knows what it wants, and works well, but not spectacularly well, in its confines. And really, compared to the stuff other old heroes like Tobe Hooper and Dario Argento crap out now, this is an earth-shattering masterpiece just by virtue of being good.

Argento seems like a rather interesting point of comparison to me in this case, because I think there are a nods to the giallo and giallo style of storytelling in The Ward, reaching from the obvious in form of Mark Kilian's (and what's up with Carpenter not doing his own score?) extremely Goblin-esque soundtrack to the less obvious in the way Carpenter treats sensationalized psychiatry, or the general plot construction that not always makes practical sense, but seems ever conscious of the demands of mood and metaphor. Some of the elements of the film that seem particularly unreal or illogical will be explained quite nicely through the semi-twist in the end, but - as is traditional in the more complicated giallos too - the explanation of what's really going on does not fit the facts so snugly it is convincing as "real" and not a construction inside of a movie; emotionally and conceptually, however, the twist seems quite fitting to me. Of course, Carpenter's idea of what makes a twist is quite superior compared to the twist ending style of contemporary horror, where you throw any old nonsense at your viewer, disregarding that it neither works as part of what came before nor has any connection to themes or mood of your movie.

Visually, The Ward is as much a John Carpenter movie as one could hope for. Carpenter is neither the type of experienced director who feels the need to suddenly use stupid jump cuts and other horrible trappings of bad direction to look hip, nor is he going for any sort of retro aesthetic. The film is the work of a man obviously pretty comfortable with his own talents as a director, not unwilling to change elements of his style up a little, but mostly interested in using his style to tell the story of his film properly. Though there are quite a few typical Carpenter moments on screen, there's no pointing at his own brilliance, yet also not a single moment that's actually brilliant. If Carpenter's style as a director in The Ward were a shoe, it were a well-loved, well-treated pair of sneakers, comfortable, probably even a near perfect fit, yet also a bit unexciting.

That "a bit unexciting" really seems to point at The Ward's major problem. There's a certain feeling of distance about the film, a lack of urgency even in the small handful of murder set pieces that made it impossible for me to really get excited about anything that was happening. The Ward never hit me on the more visceral or emotional level a horror movie should hit me on. This is not to say that The Ward is not enjoyable, rather, it's me complaining that it's not more than enjoyable and pretty interesting.

I'm not going to complain about the performance of Amber Heard, though. In the last few years, Heard has played in quite a few genre and semi-exploitation movies, and she's always convincing, likeable, sexy and believably competent without going the scream queen route of only selling the sex but not the acting, nor the superior "I'm a real actress" route. There's a dignity to an actress (or an actor) doing her best in whichever film she's in (even if it's that boring remake of And Soon the Darkness), the kind of dignity a mainstream Hollywood star doesn't have and doesn't need, but that's closer to what I'm looking for in actors than an aura of stardom.


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