Toronto: John Carpenter's The Ward
Wed Sep 15 2010
To say that my love of John Carpenter burns hotter than the rage of Halloween 's Michael Myers is, indeed, to make a gross understatement. I feel no shame in admitting that I paid good money to see Escape from L.A. five times in theaters (L.A. !), and can only offer the caveat that I was avoiding an imminent breakup, plus coming to an appreciation of the director's use of widescreen cinematography. (The breakup might have been related.) Can't you tell I'm trying to avoid weighing in on the crushing disappointment that is The Ward, Carpenter's first movie in nine years? The man's absence from movie screens has pained me (I even asked him why once), and last night's chaotic midnight screening was supercharged with geeky excitement. But even with the goodwill of leggy stars in attendance, The Ward sank quickly into exactly what I should have braced myself for, a generic, deafeningly loud shocker with little of the signature I've been craving. What went wrong? Even if this had been a full return to form for the director, the story is set in a mental institution in the 1960s, thereby making The Ward a victim of unfortunate timing with Shutter Island. (This might be part of the reason why it still has no U.S. distributor.) At the risk of spoiling two movies, let me add that the similarities run deep. Granted, Carpenter's version of Shutter Island plays a lot like an episode of Gossip Girl —not intrinsically a bad thing—with gorgeous inmate Kristen (The Informers' Amber Heard) catting around with a bunch of other outrageously hot psychotics. A wrinkly former patient named Alice starts springing up behind folks and choking them. Who is this monster? And why do her appearances always come along with an ear-piercing crack? (These headache-inducing booms make the "stingers" in Halloween sound like sparklers.) Who goes to Carpenter movies for content, though? (I do, especially when it's They Live , but never mind.) The real heartbreaker here, as with Dario Argento, is the laxness of visual style. Where are JC's stem-winding long takes, his suspense-building montages, his quiet edits? Why is there a constant thunderstorm happening, lousing up the flow with bluish lightning flashes? (That's the oldest gag in the book.) There's no sense of proportion here; everything is hyperbolic and huge, making Carpenter seem really old. He's even farmed out the soundtrack to another composer, Mark Kilian, a tragedy. I was hoping for some of the old-school synth stuff.
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One scene of electroschock therapy is a real wincer, but this is not an especially scary movie. That's a problem. The director's return should have been accompanied by a suitable script and a major push to bring him more fully into the creative process. Is Carpenter just a victim of his own laziness? His fans have dreamed about this moment for nearly a decade; he owes us a more vigorous effort. And surely, those fans extend to the filmmaking community itself. Rehire one of your old DPs, Dean Cundey. Set up a call with Kurt Russell and Stephen King. Take your time. The next one will be better. Welcome back.