Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Ward (John Carpenter, 2010)

Girl gone bad

It starts ominously enough--girl running through the woods, coming upon a house, reaching in an open window with matches to light the curtains, squatting to watch the house burn down...

The cops come and grab her; she resists violently (but if she didn't want to be arrested why didn't she run?). Kristen (Amber Heard) is sentenced to a psychiatric ward with only four other fellow patients, and the feeling of a largely abandoned, mostly empty building. They have meandering, sporadically hostile therapy sessions with a Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) who speaks in an ominously Teutonic accent, and whose primary assistant is named, ominously again, Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney)...

What exactly is going on here? Why is there almost as much staff as patients? Why does the ward look empty most of the time? Why would the nurse leave her station for such unlikely lengths of time? Why does the doctor keep using hypnotherapy? Why would Kristen burn that house down? Why was she running through those woods in the first place? The inconsistencies and unanswered questions are almost more bothersome than the creepy atmosphere, and one wonders if Carpenter went into this with a half-baked script (by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, for the record). To the suspense of Kristen surviving her ordeal is added an extra element of suspense: will Carpenter's first feature film in nine years end in disaster and disgrace for the veteran horror filmmaker?

Well--yes and no. This isn't the clean-cut Carpenter of the early years, who employed techniques pioneered by Howard Hawks to create low-budget thrillers that made much more money than was put into them (Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978)); it's not quite middle-phase Carpenter, who gleefully toyed with metaphysical concepts to the befuddlement of his fans (In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Cigarette Burns (2005)). I'd call it hybrid Carpenter, where he's trying to get back to his Halloween roots while still addressing his need to nitpick at the fraying weave that holds our reality together...

The hostility that accompanies this film is understandable--it's misleading, it refuses to explain itself, it doubles back and reinvents itself in a way that might leave the viewer confused, if he isn't paying attention. Or if he's paying too much attention; putting together the picture in one's head, the pieces may not fit, the overall scheme may not provide a satisfying resolution, or even a coherent one.

But--does that matter? Carpenter shows younger filmmakers how suspense is really done. There's a moment early in the film when the girls are in their recreation room and the entire building is plunged into a blackout; the girls are startled, then amused, then begin to panic from the oncoming thunder, the increasingly intense lightning-flash. One girl cries out; another hides. Their panic starts becoming contagious; you wonder if the flashes don't have a shock cut hidden among them that would reveal something truly frightening--

At which point Carpenter cuts to a long shot embracing the entire room. Sudden eerie silence; the lights have just come back on. All five girls stare at each other wondering--did something just end, or is something about to begin? Carpenter manages to make the failure of a “boo!” moment even more unsettling than if a scare did occur--not an easy achievement. 

Later we see evidence that Carpenter's been keeping up; some images seem inspired by Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (2002); others seem to reference Eli Roth's Hostel (2005). Not too many, thank goodness; Carpenter's still able to toss in moments that have a flavor all their own--like when Iris (Lyndsey Fonseco) is strapped down to a chair awaiting her grisly end (no digital cheats here; the prosthetic makeup looks reasonably realistic, and Carpenter shows just enough to make us flinch, not so much that it looks drawn-out and cartoonish).

Even better is when Kirsten first undergoes electroshock therapy--the order to have it approved and her strapped to a table is carried out with appalling speed (I hope if I'm ever a candidate for electroshock the doctors would at least put in the proper paperwork, or pause to consider less extreme solutions--an herbal enema, perhaps?). She's whimpering, a tongue block inserted in her mouth, the inevitability of her position all too apparent in her eyes; when shock is applied her head shudders against the leather cushion, which warps in time to her shuddering. Seen from above you see the warping as rays radiating from her head--as if she wore a halo of electric force that flashed in time to the terrible shuddering rhythm...

By film's end Carpenter manages to answer most of our questions; more, he manages to square away any number of narrative sins he's committed during the course of the story. More it's difficult to reveal--suffice to say, I only need mention certain filmmakers or even titles and you'd know what just happened; the twist is hardly new. But this is Carpenter's latest, and it's surprisingly whole and coherently put-together despite the questions posed along the way, despite the speed with which Carpenter whips the story along, despite the countless unanswered mysteries. Not his best, but I could have done much worse things with my ninety or so minutes..

First published on Businessworld, 11.24.11

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