Thursday, September 22, 2011

This is How it's Done: John Carpenter's The Ward

While I am one the biggest Ghosts of Mars fan on the planet, I think that John Carpenter’s latest film The Ward may very well be his best work in more than twenty years. Carpenter’s first feature-length film since Ghosts of Mars a decade ago might not be as ambitious as his In the Mouth of Madness (1993) or as exciting as his Vampires (1996) but he hasn’t delivered a work directed quite as beautifully directed since They Live, his sadly undervalued masterpiece from 1988.

Set in the mid-sixties and starring the fascinating young actress Amber Heard (finally an ‘it’ girl with some real chops) as Kristen, a troubled girl who ends up in an all-female wing of a mental hospital after burning down a farm house for no apparent reason, The Ward is a smart and sneaky fright-film from the pen of Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, a young writing and directing team responsible for 2005’s Long Distance. While there isn't anything particularly original about the script and the film's ending is perhaps a little too transparent, The Ward is a real filmmaker's film as Carpenter's skill behind the camera easily makes up for any pedestrian moments the plot suffers from.

While Carpenter's direction controls the film, The Ward is a production overflowing with talent in fron of and behind the camera. With its splendid supporting cast, including Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsay Fonseca and the always great Jared Harris, lively score courtesy of Mark Kilian (sitting in for Carpenter who opted out of providing the music for this one), and eerie photography by talented cinematographer Yaron Orbach (a man not usually associated with horror films), The Ward is an extremely well-rendered film that is so much more successful as a true fright-film than any other released in 2011.

Even though Amber Heard is absolutely terrific as the lead, the real star of The Ward is indeed Carpenter’s direction, which is at its confident and controlled best. When I met John Carpenter a few years back, around the time he had finished up working on his Masters of Horror episodes, about the last thing he seemed interested in was directing another feature so to see him come back with a work so polished, muscular and beautifully finessed is a really fabulous. The Ward is also incredibly contemporary feeling and outside of a marvelous visual and musical cue inspired by Halloween this is not at all Carpenter in summation mode…this is the man firing on all cylinders again and the news that he is preppy another film is extremely welcome.

Like most of John Carpenter’s great films, The Ward was released to a mostly hostile critical reception earlier this year and sadly it didn’t even have a chance to become a popular success as its time in theaters was limited at best. Pity, as this is a wonderfully elegant and well-made horror film overflowing with style. Watching this I kept saying to myself, 'This is how you do it…this is how its done', and I felt truly privileged to watch a new film by of our great American masters, who has been out of sight far too long.

The Ward looks fabulous on both DVD and Blu-ray but sadly it has arrived with only extra, an enjoyable audio commentary track from Carpenter and Jared Harris. While many have gone out of their way to trash The Ward, I found this to be quite a return to form for the great Carpenter even if it finally doesn't rank among his very best, as it doesn't have the transformative power of Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Escape From New York or Christine. I am confident that time will catch up with The Ward though and it will eventually be viewed as quite a special little-film from one of our great American auteurs.



le0pard13 said...

Count me as another Ghosts of Mars (and all those other Carpenter films you mention) fan, J. I plan on screening The Ward come October. This one received mixed reviews -- some, downright belligerent and mean. But, I am undeterred. JC always delivers films he wants to present and that's always something I find intriguing. Plus, they enjoy the quality of repeat viewing and the new aspects they draw on the viewer when doing so. Great to hear the studio at least included the director's audio commentary. I've had to hunt down Region 2 discs to THEY LIVE, PRINCE OF DARKNESS to hear those. The man is never boring. Great look at this one that makes me wish October was already here. Thanks.

Erich Kuersten said...

Count me in as a true Ghosts of Mars fan, too, brother Jeremy... as you know. One of the first film criticism pieces I ever wrote was a huge justification of its awesomeness - Death Driving Ms. Henstridge -- and I read a lot of mediocre reviews of the Ward, but you've inspired me to get that Blu-ray even if it means no dinner for a week!

Carpenter also does the best audio commentaries, so even if it's the only extra, it's worth it.. thank thank thank you for this post, which gives us all hope for the return of the true king, JC.

Jeremy Richey said...

So nice to hear some more love for GHOSTS of MARS! I've loved it since I saw it in theaters twice and I still think Natasha Henstridge is the shit. I hope you guys both dig THE WARD when you watch it. I don't get a lot of the hatred thrown at it but what can you do? It always seems like Carpenter's works are maligned only later to be revived as the great films they are. Thanks again to you both!

Jeremy Richey said...

I love your 'Death Driving Ms. Henstridge' by the way Erich!!!

Bryant Burnette said...

I think I may have found a blog that is speaking my language ... I enjoyed the hell out of "The Ward," and I wish it had gotten a real theatrical release so that more people would have seen it.

Count me in as a "Ghosts of Mars" fan, too. I love the cast in that movie. Sure, it's a little on the cheesy side, but I don't care; it's a lot of fun.

dfordoom said...

I thought I was the only one who liked his Vampires!

J.D. said...

Count me as a fan of VAMPIRES, a full-blooded horror film that just goes for it and features a blistering performance by James Woods. I like GHOST OF MARS alright. I think my problem with it is that it feels like a retread of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 only set on Mars with Ice Cube playing a Napoleon Solo wannabe. The action is good, though and it is never a full film, which I don't think Carpenter is capable of.

I'm ashamed to say that I still haven't seen THE WARD and must rectify that soon.

Fantastic review, Jeremy!

Jeremy Richey said...

Bryant, D and J.D. Thanks for the continuing comments. It's been great reading some other reactions to Carpenter's more recent output as it is so often maligned or just ignored.