JOHN CARPENTER’S THE WARD (2011)

June 14, 2011

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After a ten-year absence from the screen, John Carpenter’s welcome return is with a haunted insane asylum quickie entitled The Ward (released on cable VOD June 8th, it will receive a limited theatrical run starting July 8th). Following the box-office failure of his underrated Western-in-space yarn Ghosts of Mars (2001), Carpenter felt “burned out” and took a step back from Hollywood. He was unofficially retired, aside from happily cashing the checks from studio remakes of his work (Assault on Precinct 13, the forthcoming They Live). But after directing two episodes in Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, with tight budgets, compressed schedules and little oversight, “it was actually fun again” (interview with Fangoria). He looked for a similar setup for a possible feature, and found it when actress Amber Heard invited him to direct her in The Ward, an indie horror film funded by Echo Lake for a modest$10 million (the estimate at IMDB). He did not write the script or the score, and The Ward misses his sense of group dynamics that he studiously gleaned from Howard Hawks. Instead it’s a solid job of craftsmanship, punching up Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s hacky story mechanics with an effortlessly controlled visual scheme that creates a circular, suffocating sense of claustrophobia.

It’s 1966 in North Bend, Oregon, and Kristen (Amber Heard) is found kneeling in front of a handsome farmhouse as it burns to the ground. As the guilty, raving firebug, she is committed to a mental institution presided over by Dr. Stringer (Mad Men’s Jared Harris).  She is isolated in a locked down section of the institute, along with four other female crazies: Emily (Mamie Gummer), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Zoey (Laura-Leigh) and Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca). She warily enters their combative circle, and it is not long before she is greeted by a mummified ghost with a thirst for inmate bloodshed. The more she discovers about this poorly groomed spirit the more questions are raised about Kristen herself.

John Carpenter to I Am Rogue: “I wanted to have a good time. I could make a shadowy corridor, which is something I want to do.” Having only a few sets to work with, Carpenter makes the most of them with unsettling repetitions, evoking the ritualized circular movements of these girls’ daily lives. Even their escape attempts walk down well-trodden pathways, and always end up back where they started. Carpenter’s opening shot trawls down the hallway that leads to their cells, followed by eerily emptied out hospital rooms. This establishes the set as one of the protagonists of the film, and it ensnares its inhabitants in short order. Throughout, the institute is strangely depopulated, a result of the low budget, but it fits the interorized space he’s creating.

Carpenter fetishistically returns to the low-to-the-ground hallway tracking shot throughout the film, as it pushes in both directions, a forever thwarted promise of escape and ever-present threat of return. Kristen repeatedly tries to exit the double doors at the end of the hall, each time blocked by the brusque orderly. She succeeds one final time, with Zoey as a hostage, but this exit signals her psychological breakdown.The other major repeating setup is a high-angle view in the cells, looking down at Kristen and the previous tenant, Tammy. This establishes a vertical axis of escape as opposed to the tracking shots’ horizontals pushing through the frame. This pays off when Kristen and Emily scamper their way through an air vent above their section, but this axis ultimately pushes them down, and they end up in the basement morgue, even further from freedom. The girls are caught in these two axes of up and down, forward and backward, an endless circling with no exit. It’s a simple template well elaborated by Carpenter and his DP Yaron Orbach.

The cast, a marketer’s dream team of starlets (it’s Shutter Island Gossip Girl, or something), is surprisingly effective. Amber Heard does a fine no-frills job as Kristen, playing against her delicate beauty by exuding a bulldog intensity, pushing forward regardless of the consequences. Panabaker does a fine if cliched narcissistic bitch routine, while Laura-Leigh has little more to do than mew at her stuffed bunny. The real standout is Mamie Gummer’s Emily,  a jumpy, skittish yelper, and the only lady that truly seems unhinged. Her moon-face and wild eyes fixate on Heard early on, threatening violence or a suffocating kind of love.

The dialogue they churn through is of the boiler-plate variety, chewy exposition to move the ladies into the next fright. The ghost, though, is refreshingly physical, with the CGI reserved for long shots or disapperaing acts. For the most part it’s a make-up aided product, and you can feel the weight of its leprous fingers as they twitch the electroshock machine past its breaking point. The explanation for the wraith’s behavior, as is usual these days, is explained by a final twist that invalidates all of the action that came before it. It cannot, however, undo the understated brilliance of Carpenter’s relentlessly logical visuals, whose intimations of spiritual and physical entrapment lingers long after the script’s manufactured shock fades away.

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