Friday, October 21, 2011

Playing the Mind Guerrilla

How degenerate has the movie industry become that John Carpenter--John mother fucking Carpenter!--has to have the backing of b-movie actress Amber Heard to get a job directing a movie? Is this a reflection of how low Carpenter's own career has sunk or a reflection of the movies generally? Or both? I don't know. I DO know that I'm mad as hell that I never got to see his new film, The Ward (2010), in a theater. I mean, Carpenter's name alone would have guaranteed a decent release even a decade ago, but this film, like a LOT of independent films these days, is in the twilight zone between limited festival release and video on demand. It doesn't deserve it, either, because I think this would have played fine at the multiplex.

I've been a harsh critic of Carpenter's late career, so color me surprised that this new film finds the director seemingly engaged with his material for the first time in decades. True, he hasn't actually made a film in ten years, Masters of Horror episodes not withstanding, but this is better than anything he's done since at least the mid-eighties, perhaps because it's relatively atypical of his other work. Carpenter had no hand in writing this film, nor any hand in scoring it, and it's the first film he's made since his first that wasn't shot in that prowling Panavision that so distinctively marks his film frame as his own. Perhaps subtracting all of these things challenged Carpenter's long dormant creative fire. There were problems to be solved with this film, and damned if he doesn't solve most of them.

For what it's worth, I'm probably overselling this, because in the grand scheme of things, The Ward is NOT a masterpiece, nor a patch on Carpenter's best films. For that matter, it's so derivative of other films that it becomes distracting after a while, but none of this can be laid at the director's feet. This may be a mercenary work for hire for Carpenter, but he's a professional mercenary, so the work is good.

Anyway, this is a psychiatric horror movie along the lines of Shock Corridor or Shutter Island, in which a girl named Kristen is institutionalized after setting a farm house on fire. Like many psychiatric movies, this is a puzzle movie and unraveling the puzzle is akin to psychoanalysis. Kristen is taken to a ward inhabited by several other young women, each corresponding to a "type:" Iris is artistic and seems hopeful of leaving, Emily is disaffected, Sarah is a boy-crazy sweater girl, and Zoey has regressed to a quasi-infantile state. Hanging over the ward is the ghost (literally) of Alice Hudson, who seems hell-bent on killing all of the girls in the ward for some past affront. Kristen takes it upon herself to protect the other girls if she can, but her unruliness lands her in the chair for electro-convulsive therapy. Slowly but surely, the ghost "gets" the other girls, until only Kristen remains to unravel the mystery...

This kind of movie relies on sleight of hand to achieve its final effect, and Carpenter is fully up to the kinds of meta-cinematic games required of him. If the movie is disappointing--and in some ways, it is--then that's because the ultimate solution to the puzzle is so utterly banal. However expertly it is made, you've still seen this movie before. This is by and large a problem with the script, though it's disappointing that the movie ends on a Carrie-esque cheap shot, and one that the director has used before almost verbatim, at that. I'm also not particularly impressed with this film's monster, which seems like an amalgam of Japanese horror conventions and a Night of the Living Dead-ish zombie. Ghosts should have a whiff of the uncanny (think Santi, the ghost in The Devil's Backbone, for a good example), and this film's ghost tends to read as a stuntman covered with (admittedly pretty good) prostheses.

That all said, this film is beautifully made. Carpenter's staging is assured, and his camera, if not so wide as before, remains elegantly restless as it prowls the corridors of its psychiatric ward. Amber Heard is pretty good in the lead, and Danielle Panabaker, Mamie Gummer, Laura-Leigh, and Lyndsy Fonseca, each of the actresses tasked with other inmates nails their essential character down to their types. The movie even provides them each with something like a moment of grace, particularly when the movie lets go of its horror movie tropes and has them all dancing around the rec room to "Run, Baby, Run." It's a fleeting moment, but it's one that shows the filmmakers breaking the trap in which they've found themselves.

Current tally: 18 films

First time viewings: 18

Around the Web:

The Vicar of VHS over at Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movies watches Paranormal Activity 2 and finds it to be wanting.

Stacia over at She Blogged by Night celebrated Bela Lugosi's birthday yesterday, and mea culpa for not doing the same.

Mr. Gable at Mr. Gable's Reality conjures up bad memories for yours truly while looking at The Manitou.

They're not doing the Challenge, per se, but I wanted to link to Ferdy on Film at least once this month because they're one of THE best movie blogs on the web and they're reviewing Manos: Hand of Fate this week.

Tim over at The Other Side takes on Dracula's Curse. He's also reading several varieties of paranormal fiction, and he's writing about Kim Harrison novels this week.

Finally, Eric over at Expelled Gray Matter writes about one of my mother's favorite movies, The Spiral Staircase*, this morning. And if you haven't seen it, you should.

*...and my mother, it should be noted, would be horrified by my egregious use of the phrase "mother fucking" at the beginning of this post. If she were still here today, she'd probably break a wooden spoon across the back of my skull for such profanity.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

In addition to the events you mentioned, I just notice that Dennis Cozzalio has published yet another one of his mammoth movie quizzes, this time focused on horror films. I'm not enough of a genre fan to attempt it but if you were interested...