Thursday 3 February 2011

The Ward and the Sorcerer

John Carpenter's The Ward 2011 USA
Directed by John Carpenter
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Here be multifaceted, psychological spoilers to penetrate and split
your fragile personality!

Man! It’s been 10 years since a movie directed by that “Sorcerer of Scares”, John Carpenter, has fetched up on our celluloid shores here in our merry little island of a country (and I’m as pleased that he’s got a new film out as I am that I managed to justify this post title within my first paragraph). 10 years since the science-fiction western Ghosts of Mars was entertaining people like my friends and I, while getting a critical drubbing from seemingly everyone else.

I’ve missed him. I’ve always had a big, soft spot for Carpenter since I was totally gobsmacked by The Fog when I was a kid... could never really get into Halloween but a load of his other films were always great to watch as the, almost always, 2.35:1 aspect ratios filled the width of my imagination. I guess in some ways it’s not completely true to say it’s been ten years... he did, after all, direct two of the better episodes of the excellent Masters of Horror TV show in the interim. But Carpenter’s always been about the big screen for me... those large, wide, anamorphic canvasses inspired by the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks (perhaps more Hawksian in tone than visual inspiration?) where you just know all the action is going to be immaculately framed and presented with a lovingly crafted electronic score, often by the director himself, to give it that extra layer of “Carpenterness“ that some other directors lack.

So I was hugely looking forward to The Ward last week as I sat in my local flea-pit waiting for the credits to roll... and what credits! They’ve kinda taken a leaf out of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell opening titles, except using old illustrations of horrifying psychiatric cures from the dawn of the science of the mind instead of images of demons, but then adding a layer of shattering glass while all this is going on... perhaps a very conscious allusion to the disturbing psychological states that this films deals with as highlighted by Carpenter’s director friend Dario Argento and one of Argento’s chroniclers who quotes Suspiria in the title of her book, Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds.

I have to say that watching this one was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The story of a new arrival in a seemingly haunted mental ward... on the one hand it does what a Carpenter movie, when he’s got his “strictly horror” head on, does best... it does make you jump a fair bit. On the other hand it really is an obvious movie to watch (the only surprises being which side of the screen the next jump is going to come from) and not very far removed from those old psycho-babble Hollywood productions of the 40s and 50s where studios were using their “new found confidence” in various psychological symptoms and either simplifying them or just plain getting them wrong and using that to hang a thrilling plot of a movie on... the absolute best of that particular bunch and one I would urge everyone to watch, even though it’s as guilty of “crimes against psychology” as the next movie, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. That’s a really great one (and try to get a print with the 12 frames of red in it).

And that’s the real problem with this movie, I think... at least from my point of view. There’s a really obvious, almost Scooby-Doo explanation for everything that’s going on in the film and I did kind of feel that my intelligence was being insulted to a large degree while I was waiting for the next-big-scare. You are almost certainly going to guess the “twist ending” to the film which involves the discovery of, well, a large number of multiple personalities and I can’t help but think that this movie is aimed, as most movies are these days, largely at a teenage audience... I don’t think even the director would argue with that. After all... only teenagers go to see scary movies, right?

But, take away the inadequacies of the plotline and you have another layer which I think (hope) was a stylistic intention of the movie rather than a lack of coverage during the shoot. And that is the fact that the film tends to jump around and play fast and loose with making clear certain events. It’s almost like it’s jump cutting around the little bits of information it doesn’t want you to overtly know yet. At first I thought this was Carpenter playing around with the fragmentary/splintered nature of the human psyche as it is portrayed here (and that may well have been his artistic intent with the editing style on this one) but after I realised what the end of the movie was going to be, I also came to the conclusion that, had Carpenter let certain scenes play on, they would reveal the twist to the movie almost straight away (which he kind of did anyway... obviously).

This is not to say in any way that The Ward is a clumsy film... far from it. As usual for a Carpenter film, the lighting and shot compositions and manipulative, pulse-like music are all top notch... I just think the film suffers from maybe having a badly written script... or possibly a great script that just doesn’t translate too well to the screen. Either way I was fairly torn as to how I felt about it... The Ward was the second film I’d seen last week to deal with protagonists with a steadily weakening grasp on their own reality (the other being Black Swan). I think on the whole I have to say that The Ward was a pretty fun watch... surefooted in it’s mise-en-scene and it did make me jump in a few places (that definitely gains it brownie points in my book) but I think it’s possibly one purely for die hard Carpenter fans or people who can easily dismiss the over-wrought plot line.

I’d certainly buy the DVD of this one... but I’ll wait until it hits the sales before making that purchase. I just hope this one moves some box office so Carpenter is encouraged to get back in the Director’s Chair more often... it’s been kinda lonely for horror fans without his new movies coming to visit.

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