John Carpenter's THE WARD is a horrifying movie, and not in the way that fans hoped

by Matthew Seitz
July 7, 2011 3:21 AM
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By Steven Boone
PressPlay contributor

Imagine going to your favorite opera tenor’s latest performance and he takes the stage only to play the orchestral portion of his selections on a MacBook while reading the lyrics off a sheet like it was a kindergarten roll call. That’s what John Carpenter’s The Ward is like. We know Carpenter mainly as a horror film director-composer, and in a court of law this can be called a horror movie. It has killing and screaming in it. But Carpenter’s name above the title is still a mystery. There is almost nothing about it that so much as whispers his name. The trouble seems to be in the editing room.

Most people who aren’t cineastes or filmmakers tend to think of film editing as the simple practice of cutting out the boring, botched or unnecessary parts of a movie. That’s always been more or less the prevailing misconception. What’s changed in the past 20 years is the number of professional film editors who agree with it. How many movies today are just a collage of “good parts” that leave you feeling like you’ve seen everything and yet nothing?

They are empty not because they’re stupid (and, yes, many of them are stupid) but because they proceed through their stories with no feel for pacing or rhythm, anticipation or tension. Their fear of losing audience attention span becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now John Carpenter is the latest veteran filmmaker to get abducted into the ranks of nervous wreck filmmakers. His films have never aimed higher than B-movie thrills and chills; the acting in them has often been broad and forced, the plots upgrades of ‘50s schlock. Didn’t matter. The majority of them are gorgeous enough to bring a sensitive soul to tears. The beauty was in the way Carpenter stretched suspense to the breaking point in a cavernous Panavision frame seemingly as wide as all outdoors—even when stuck inside a lighthouse, an arctic base camp or a suburban living room. Carpenter understood that every shot was its own luminous, shadow-shrouded universe, and that when those universes collided—when one shot gave way to another—the potential was explosive. He often expanded our sense of the space and heightened the dramatic stakes by drawing a canvas of percussive or steady electronic notes across the cuts. If film editing, which Andrei Tarkovsky called a director’s handwriting, could exude charisma, Carpenter’s had it in spades.

The only thing in The Ward that indicates Carpenter’s participation is its intelligent use of light and shadow to sketch this particular horror “universe,” an early-1960’s insane asylum. The fictional North Bend Psychiatric Hospital has a distinct look of steel blue-grey and rust, but bouncing around in this environment rather than luxuriating in it, Carpenter renders it pep squad chirpy, not scary. Every scene comes at you the same way, in three-second giblets that don’t instill panic so much as the irritation of a schoolteacher tending a bunch of hyper kids. That might have been the aim here, since the ward patients are all young, bratty females. But (at the risk of clobbering you with too many crude metaphors) that’s like letting the catty bitches who threw tampons at Carrie White edit Brian DePalma’s Carrie.

This movie’s Carrie is played by a very strong actress, Amber Heard, and her commitment as a girl traumatized by events she can’t remember gives us a reason to fight through the clutter of expository psychobabble and looka-here-looka-there cutting. And casting as a nurse Susanna Burney, an unsettling presence with sallow skin and cold shark’s eyes, feels like a Carpenter move. As with many of his ‘70s horror peers, he was always good at throwing some otherworldly faces into the mix. Indie film veteran Jared Harris also lends a pasty, creepy mug as the supervising psychiatrist who simultaneously evokes father figure and predator.

The big scare set pieces all conclude with a classic Carpenter-style money shot of swift, eye-popping brutality. Since the musical score (pointedly not by Carpenter) and visual flow have been uniformly frantic, these atrocities barely elicit a flinch. It’s ironic that a pivotal scene features a metronome that mesmerizes patients: Carpenter the hypnotist is nowhere in sight.

It’s the basic geekiness of all the above complaints that allows studios and big name filmmakers to get away with high-gloss, low-impact films like The Ward every time. After all, it’s exactly the kind of reedy lament you might hear while standing on line at Green Lantern and think, “Get a life, nerd. It’s just a stupid popcorn movie! Why don’t YOU go and make one if you can do better?”

Studio executives are monitoring such incidents through binoculars from the tops of their skyscrapers and rubbing their hands together contentedly. “Excellent.” They are saboteurs and poisoners of our relationship with what used to be the movies, and they’ve even co-opted great directors. It doesn’t matter that The Ward is low-budget and independently produced. Its flow is as vacuously corporate as a CGI skull-crusher with ten times its resources. Somebody write a horror flick about that.

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