Wednesday, September 15, 2010

TIFF 2010: John Carpenter's "The Ward"

(Midnight Madness)

(USA, 2010, 88 minutes)

Written by: Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen

Directed by: John Carpenter

Cast: Amber Heard, Danielle Panabaker, Lyndsy Fonseca, Jared Harris, Mamie Gummer

I must 'fess up: there are few people on this earth who are bigger fans of director John Carpenter than myself. He became one of my favourite filmmakers (for a period of time, THE favourite) immediately when I first saw "The Fog" on a double-bill with "Jaguar Lives" in the winter of 1981. He was the only celebrity to whom I've ever written a fan letter (he responded1), and I've since written essays on his body of work in high school and in university film studies (my senior thesis) and have marked his every subsequent release as a major event. A master of widescreen composition and that rare auteur who can make genre personal, I've long held him in the highest esteem amongst 70s/80s directorial darlings like Coppola and Scorsese. It's taken nearly two decades, but the critical community seems to have finally caught up...

Sadly for fans, it's been more than a decade since Carpenter has helmed a theatrical feature, and while his two instalments for HBO's "Masters Of Horror" cable TV series were impressive (esp. "Cigarette Burns", scored by his son Cody), his devotees have been pining for a follow-up endeavour. How could the man who gave us "They Live" stay so silent during two successive Bush administrations? Where was John Nada to save us all?

Several titles have been announced over the years, and one, "The Ward", saw the light of a projector beam.

The first John Carpenter film ever to play the Toronto International Film Festival (it's about bloody time), this modest little shocker bears the director's title above the credits--as per usual--but Carpenter did not conceive or write the film (nor did he score it), so there's something about it that smacks of "work for hire". Still, it shows that the iconoclastic director's skills as the one-time master of screen terror have hardly atrophied during his absence, and delivers on his press kit promise of old school, straight-up chills that he pretty much wrote the patent for in 1978 with his still unequalled "Halloween".

Carpenter's not exactly pushing himself as an artist here, but as comfort food, "The Ward" is entirely nourishing...

It's 1966. Authorities arrest a young woman, Kristen (Heard), after she sets fire to remote farmhouse. She's brought to North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, where she's admitted to the care of Dr. Stringer (Harris), who attempts to unlock the cause of her breakdown and violent act, but she's unwilling to explore her past. Kristen strikes up a friendship with four other patients: sassy Sarah (Panabaker), artistic Iris (Fonsenci), aggressive Emily (Gummer), and the innocent Zoey (Leigh), who clings to a stuffed bunny. The other girls speak of a phantom figure who haunts the halls of the secret ward at night--a ward where few make it out alive...

Comparatively subtle, slow-paced, and even elegant to most modern offerings (hard to believe that not all that long ago, Carpenter was dismissed as a purveyor of misogynistic violence), the director's approach confidently and deliberately echoes the great suspense yarns of yesteryear, acknowledging Jacques Tournier, Sam Fuller, and of course, his own influential early work starting with "Assault On Precinct 13" (although dare I suggest Frederick Wiseman and William Peter Blatty?)...

Not quite the "return to form" one hoped for, Carpenter delivers what he does best: the ghost is as scary as Michael Myers (and seems to have been inspired by Dick Smith's underrated work on John Irvin's "Ghost Story"), the cast of young women endearing and sympathetic (as was his cast in "Halloween"), and people coping with exterior menace while in a confined space has long been his speciality since "Dark Star".
The third act twist telegraphed a bit early, I thought, but actually makes psychological sense so doesn't seem like quite the rug pull as it did--POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT--in the similarly-themed "Shutter Island".

It's nice to have you back, John. But don't make us wait so long for the next one, okay?

"The Ward" is scheduled for release in January in the UK, but as of this writing, no release date for the US has been set, which is a shame...

©2010 Robert J. Lewis