The Ward – John Carpenter – 2010

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It’s not my purpose to come on here and talk trash about John Carpenter’s The Ward. I’m going to say many nice things about it, before I get to A. Why it doesn’t work, and B. What really are the disappointments associated with it. I as you may know from this page, I’m a raging, rabid fan of John Carpenter, and I believe he has had one of the most singular and fearless voices in all of cinema. Beyond that, he is one of the masters of the medium who elevated the horror genre to what it is today, with several of his films yet to be surpassed in what it is that they achieve.

And what is that exactly? What makes John Carpenter such a genius? It is namely, his predilection to portray authority, (Policemen, The Church, The Government), as ineffectual, duplicitous and malicious. Normally these types of reflections are frowned upon by Hollywood, and in his ballsiest pictures, (They Live, Prince Of Darkness), he made it without their help. However, films such as Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, Escapes From NY and LA and his masterpiece, The Thing, are all carefully plotted subversions packing dense social commentary into exciting genre fare.

Then there is The Ward.

Gone are the aesthetic tropes one has come to expect from Carpenter. Abandoning his classic 2.35:1 aspect ratio and losing his trademark self-composed score, it’s as if Carpenter is shedding his skin. He’s almost apologizing for the work with these moves as if to say, yeah, well, it’s not one of the REAL John Carpenter films.

That stuff said, the film is handsomely photographed and the score by Mark Kilian is effective and atmospheric.

So, where does the film go wrong? Is it the acting? Nope, Amber Heard is absolutely the right choice for this role. She is strong and vulnerable at the same time, which is a tough combination. She also exudes both intelligence and ignorance throughout the picture that is also a good trick. The supporting cast is good, but no one really calls attention to himself or herself. That could be a function of the general conceit of the film.

All of the characters are the aspects of the protagonist, but inside her mind. Aside from the doctor and nurse all of the girls in the ward are schizophrenic projections inside Amber Heard’s brain. This is saved as reveal for the end, and it comes off super weak. It completely takes the piss and stakes out of all the atmosphere and carnage that precedes it.

Similar, endings are found in the Italian zombie snoozer, Nightmare City, and the lackluster Identity directed by the quite competent James Mangold. These types of reveals at the end of stories undermine the investment the audience has made in the story and suck all the scrutiny away. The audience no longer cares what happens, when all they have been told is a kind of lie.

The way around this is simple; you don’t even really have to change the plot. Instead of making the climactic moment the reveal of the character’s neurosis, instead, cut back to the cause of said neurosis, as in Shutter Island. Sure, we see fragments of Alice’s tormentor, but a scene of her attack and her escape would have been a stellar ending to the film. The plot doesn’t change a bit, but we find a big set piece to end on rather than the delivering of some information and Amber Heard falling out of a window.

Furthermore, we could have portrayed Alice’s assailant as, well anything. I was going to say an authority figure, in order to put it in line with Carpenters work. Maybe say, a cop, a senator, or a priest. But instead we get nothing, not even a face. There are only a few cuts of some dude undoing his pants. Your story is only as strong as your villain and if you are going to tell me at the end of your tale this guy made Alice’s mind fragment into multiple voices, the least you could do is fully create a characterization for the menace.

I’m not sure if Carpenter will ever come back to us. He admits that he spends more time now playing video games than watching films, and that saddens me. I wish he were still the rabid film fan from his youth, blending Howard Hawkes and Lucio Fulci together while mooning the establishment. He was a fucking rock-star. It would be my absolute dream to give Carpenter a script that would get his middle fingers back in the air. Let me know John, all I want is to see you teeth out and biting.

It also would have helped if Kurt Russell had played the psychiatrist.

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