November 5, 2011

Movie Review: The Ward

Can you believe it has been a decade since the last John Carpenter movie? Me neither. At the same time, I get the impression that he is not terribly interested in directing anymore, or at least not as much. The attitude seems to shine through some of his latest outing, The Ward. It is a movie that sadly, but probably rightfully, skipped theatrical release (although I definitely would have gone) and made its premiere on VOD before hitting the likes of Blu-ray and Netflix.

I had been looking forward to seeing it, despite the smattering of mediocre to less than glowing reviews that had popped up upon is release. I mean, it is John Carpenter after all, the man deserves respect and perhaps even a pass or two beyond the ones he's already been given over the years. There are few that can boast such great films as Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York, The Thing, and even They Live on their resumes.

The Ward is a movie that I ultimately like, but not without reservations. I found it to be a touch lazy and derivative at times, while there are plenty of other moments that show him doing what heroes best in terms of creating atmosphere and dread, not to mention simply giving you something interesting to look at on the screen. I just really wish he had taken it to the next level, I just feel as if there were missed opportunities to deliver something truly excellent. Still, the moments that are on truly work and even the climax that I have seen done in other movies works. Perhaps there is some nostalgia factoring in as I think about his great films, but I don't think that diminishes the middling accomplishment made here.

Yes, I recognize that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it isn't meant as one. Carpenter certainly knows his way around a movie set and there are a lot of bits here to support that. It is just too bad that the material wasn't up to snuff for to work with.

The movie opens with a desolate farmhouse that is a raging inferno. A girl is slumped outside watching it burn with a glassy, faraway look in her eye. A police car drives up and two officers drag her kicking and screaming away from the house. Her name is Kristen (Amber Heard) and that is all she knows. She has no memories before the fire. She is deemed to be crazy (though they don't like using that word) and is tossed in the ward with a few other girls suffering mental issues.

Kristen and the other girls are in the care Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris). He uses unconventional methods to treat the girls. They are pretty much always on some sort of medicine cocktail and there is the occasional use of electroshock therapy. All of this is in an effort to cure the girls of what ails them, and in the case Kristen, regain her memories and learn who she really is.

This is more than a period piece (it is set in 1966), there are supernatural and psychological elements at play. Kristen begins to see, and be attacked by, a ghost. It looks like a zombie girl. The other girls seem to know more than they are letting on.

The latter third of the film gives us revelations of the nature of the ward and who the ghost is. I will not spoil it for you here, but it does add something to the film. It adds another layer to the tale that does add interest to Kristen's plight, however, it also brings up more questions and inconsistencies. It is the sort of writing that probably should have had a couple of more passes done on it.

While the narrative has holes in it, or at least lapses in logic, there are some very nice looking sequences shot only the way John Carpenter can. Despite often looking a little lackluster and underdressed, there is something that I liked abut the way it looked. There were a number of slow tracking shots and reveals that were just fantastic. Watch as we are taken slowly into the common room of the ward, or as Kristen steps further into the shadows of a broom closet as we see precious little through the window in the door.

There is also Amber Heard to deal with. I like her as an actress, she has not always had good roles and I think she is still think she is in search of that role to really push her over the top. Here, she is very convincing as the determined, rebellious Kristen, who is also a scared girl who needs and wants help. She has a great screen presence and helps make this movie work with her energy.

Overall, this is a decent movie that is certainly watchable, flaws and all. It has a good cast and a story that may be familiar, but still manages to entertain. I do think that Carpenter may be in the twilight of his directing career, but I think he has one more really good film in him. This is not that really good film. Check out, just keep your expectations in check.


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