In a review posted today on the main site, I wasn't exactly kind to John Carpenter's "The Ward," although if it was just some forgettable effort from a first-timer I may have simply ignored it. Instead, it's a forgettable effort from a guy who has made masterpieces and for all intents and purposes should still be able to make them. "The Ward" proves that by containing many of the components of great Carpenter works while failing to bring them to life. Here are a few other options that will remain classics long after "The Ward" fades from memory. ("Halloween" being "Halloween," I have left it off this list. It's not really fair to compare any movie to an acknowledged classic of its genre, is it?) With the exception of "Dark Star," all of these titles are available on Netflix Instant.
Carpenter's directorial debut, a student film, was a savvy take-off on sci-fi conventions about a couple of astronauts hippies aimlessly wandering the universe. Although amusingly campy at times, particularly in its implementation of an alien beach ball, "Dark Star" contains an effectively claustrophobic setting and makes its goofball characters (one of whom is played by co-screenwriter and effects guru Dan O'Bannon, later hired to work on "Star Wars") genuinely likable, which gives the morbid climax a bittersweet finish. "The Ward" also uses a single location, but makes its ill-fated protagonists utterly banal. Watch it online here.
Like "The Ward," Carpenter's follow-up to "Halloween" also revolves around murderous ghosts who were killed by evildoers of the past. But in this case, their fury calls into question the town's ritualistic celebration of its centennial. The spirits of lepers killed by the town's founders, these angry beings eventually converge on the church and drag a golden crucifix back with them to the other side. Carpenter spookily deconstructs traditional hometown and religious allegiances with the little more than a smoke machine and make-up at his disposal.
This hilarious send-up of capitalist society stars “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as a homeless man who picks up a pair of sunglasses that enable to see aliens that overtook the world months earlier. The subject of a recent book by Jonathan Lethem, "They Live" is undeniably irreverent fun, but maintains its clever indictment of modern society's Orwellian proclivities. Also: Without a doubt the best fist fight ever committed to moving pictures since the early days of boxing films. See below.
"Escape from New York"
Just imagine how much better "The Ward" would be if Snake Plissken had to escape from it.
Carpenter's studio effort landed an Oscar nomination for Jeff Bridges. It's a warm, energizing sci-fi tale that deals cogently with issues of love and family--"E.T." for grown-ups. And if Carpenter had stuck to the material like this, his audience would have broadened in wonderful ways. Alas, it was not to be.