Fair warning, there are mild spoilers in this review.

As most people of my age who have an interest in genre film, I’m a fan of John Carpenter. Granted, his work has occasionally been hit-and-miss, but he has also provided us with classics such as his “apocalypse trilogy” (PRINCE OF DARKNESS, THE THING, and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS). Carpenter eased back from feature film directing after the often panned GHOSTS OF MARS (2001), a fun horror film rammed into a truly original (at the time) science fiction film resulting in a mish-mash of material that never quite came together.

So does THE WARD signal Carpenter’s triumphant return to feature directing? Or is it a fluttering exhalation from a dying career?

Sadly, it’s neither. Not astounding enough to match Carpenter at the height of his powers, THE WARD is equally not bad enough to reach the hilarious depths of his mis-steps. Instead, at the end of the 90 minutes of THE WARD the viewer is left with the taste of bland mush. We’ve tasted this fare before, and it comes across like a mess of pottage.

Which should not detract from the highlights of the film. Carpenter is, if nothing else, an incredibly talented eye, and it shows here. His direction is generally top-drawer, even when he’s assembling scenes that any horror fan would be able to recognize with their eyes shut in a darkened basement squeezed into a small footlocker. While the final product would come across as workmanlike under the stewardship of any other director, THE WARD’s rather banal sequences nevertheless show the artistry that a true master of the craft is capable of.

Not that Carpenter is alone, here. Yaron Orbach’s cinematography and photography direction is amazingly deft, particularly in the use of lighting and how shadows confuse an observer’s sense of space. Patrick McMahon’s editing keeps the film moving at a lively pace, though some choices of cut left me scratching my head; there’s a time and a place for holding beats slightly longer than need be, especially in furtherance of suspense. Unfortunately THE WARD misses almost every opportunity for ratcheting up tension by simply sustaining a given shot.

The casting is fine and good — Amber Heard stars as Kristen, a young woman sent to a psychiatric institution after inexplicably burning down a remote farmhouse in 1966. She brings a strong physicality to the role, which is appropriate, but her strongest note is the expressiveness of her face. Given the almost inevitable comparisons between THE WARD and other asylum-centered films such as ONE FLEW OVER THE CUKOO’S NEST, Heard’s ability to convey convincing emotive states through a glance or a lingering expression is a boon and reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in the aforementioned drama.

Starring alongside Heard is a cluster of fellow patients, each one of them strikingly attractive and possessed of telegraphed manias that their characters revolve around. The actors carry their roles well, but the problem is that by grounding their characters in their psychiatric disorders the screenwriters have taken a pathetically lazy approach to characterization. Rather than interesting, fully developed personalities who are suffering from afflictions grafted onto and eclipsing their core selves, what we are given is a series of neuroses that happen to have arms and legs. This is not how one constructs a set of well-rounded protagonists, and frankly the authors should be rather ashamed of themselves.

Jared Harris, apparently on hiatus from MAD MEN, appears here as the confusing Dr Stringer. Though Harris is of course an excellent actor, he doesn’t have all that much to work with in this role. Much of Dr Stringer goes unexplored, to the film’s detriment since a vast amount of fascinating storyline could have been teased out of the paper-thin hints we receive of his history within the hospital he directs. Especially frustrating are exchanges he has with other staff, particularly head nurse Ms Lundt (Susanna Burney delivering a somewhat phoned in Nurse Ratchet impersonation), which hint at real conflict within the institution itself that threatens to undermine the hierarchy therein that we would naturally assume to be stable.

So, a talented cast, crew, and cast, all plagued by banal elements hampering their very best efforts. Ultimately the problems with THE WARD come down to the writing. Mysteries are either under-developed or over-explained. Tired and easily recognizable elements are not brought to bear with any sense of innovation or original thought. Characterization is weak, at best, and frustratingly absent at worst. Lazy choices (why is this a period piece?) abound, betraying the viewer by hinting at what COULD have been accomplished if the scriptwriters hadn’t shied away at the last hurdle. Genuine frights are co-opted by standard jump scares, and a progression of natural tension is undercut by pedestrian execution that plays to cheap anxiety rather than challenging unsettling of surety in assumptions.

THE WARD is hardly the triumphant return to feature directing that John Carpenter deserves — and is abundantly capable of. The film is well worth seeing for viewers who are interested in seeing technical masters work their craft, or are intrigued by talented actors doing what they can with a mediocre script. For horror fans, there have been significantly better ghost stories and haunted house stories coming to DVD and theatres over the past few years. If psychiatric thrillers combined with tawdry spook stories and an ASTOUNDING number of jump scares whet your appetite for cinema, then enjoy. But for viewers who had hoped for something more original than refried plots and unconvincing characters, I’m afraid that you’ll have to look elsewhere. Or, like me, keep waiting for Carpenter to hit his high water mark once more.

On a scale of one to ten THE THINGS, I give THE WARD a two.

On a scale of one to ten SAMURAI COPs, I give THE WARD a one point five.

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Midas Is King

January 22, 2010

After a tumultuous holiday season, I’m back. Managed to survive Christmas with the in-laws, crossing the border twice and flying three times, plus driving up in blizzard conditions for my birthday and New Year’s with my friends. Work rushed back in, as it is wont to do, distracting me further, and if that wasn’t bad enough I got broken into last week. Bastards stole my laptop and a bunch of other things, and I lost at least a week’s worth of work (truth to tell I’m still not sure how much I actually lost). Thankfully I was able to hit the ground running and, I think, I’m back up to form now. So no worries.

More fiction tomorrow, depending on how much I can get written tonight. Meantime I suggest all you Americans out there barrage your congressmen with e-mails and letters to protest the recent decision to remove the ban on corporate sponsorship of federal elections. This isn’t a decision that appraoches justice or equanimity! It’s nothing more than a re-opening of a door to graft and corruption that had been wisely shut for some years. So get your asses out there, proverbially speaking! Don’t let corporate interests get the idea that your elections are for sale! Remember lobbiests? This would be one-hundred times (exactly, scientifically measured and tested) worse at the very least! SO DO SOMETHING.