Wednesday, February 3, 2016

John Carpenter, part XXVIII: One flew under the cuckoo's nest


Five years ago, JC left us with one last gift before heading right back to the Basketball and Video Game Dimension; and, as I'm sure you know, The Ward was not appreciated in its time, nor is it tremendously appreciated now.  But, in our own small way, we aim to change that.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen
With Amber Heard (Kristen), Mamie Gummer (Emily), Danielle Panabaker (Sarah), Lyndsy Fonssca (Iris), Laura Leigh Moser (Zoe), Susanna Burney (Nurse Bundt), Dan Anderson (Orderly Roy), and Jared Harris (Dr. Gerald Stringer)

Spoiler alert: severe

After nine years on his couch, John Carpenter made a return to feature filmmaking in 2011, and though it was never supposed to be the proverbial "one last job," ultimately that's what The Ward turned out to be.  Oh, we'd all love to see JC rise from the ashes yet again—hey, that's been the story of his life!—but I'm not holding my breath.  Instead, I'll be content with what we already have: a final film absolutely worthy of the great director who made it.

Not exactly the popular opinion, that.

Sure, it's easy to see why it was hammered by critics and shunned by audiences, but even JC's fans don't typically like The Ward, and this is almost inexplicably strange—although considering that nothing short of unequivocal greatness was ever going to completely redeem the threepeat failure of Escape From L.A., Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars, maybe it's really no surprise.

The Ward is certainly not unequivocally great.  It's a scruffy little thriller, and nothing more.  And yet everything about it points to a deliberate attempt to make exactly that.  Indeed, in many respects, it's even shabbier than the soft-sleaze of Tormented, the Burt I. Gordon B-movie we find The Ward's characters halfheartedly watching on their shared TV(Tormented, at least, puts forward a relatively solid Tell-Tale Heart scenario.)  But The Ward's awareness of its own weaknesses is its most undeniable strength, and its self-knowledge is deployed with a master's wisdom, never the hateful irony you'd expect from a movie made in 2011.  It all leaves me wondering how anyone could actually get mad at it—especially when it comes fortified with the kind of vintage Carpenter style that hadn't been seen in one of his movies in sixteen long and fruitless years.

It's 1966, and we begin at the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, the night of a murder committed by a shadowy, feminine figure in the women's wing of the institution.  And with this business out of the way, we can begin again, with our actual heroine, the amnesia-afflicted Kristen.  After a nice, buffering credits sequence, we find Kristen running through the woods to a farmhouse that she immediately burns down—attracting the attention of police, who naturally render her to the asylum.  Here, she comes under the care of one Dr. Stringer, who is British and therefore presumptively evil; meanwhile, her day-to-day supervision falls to his subordinates, Nurse Bundt, a chip off the old Ratched, and the main orderly, Roy, whom you will be absolutely astonished to discover doesn't sexually assault his patients.  (Obviously—and this isn't a secret the movie ever intends to keep—Kristen's initial breakdown was precipitated by a bout of nasty childhood sexual abuse, which is fair enough as far as it goes, but while it remains an open question whether a movie that goes down this path should also have a lingering, De Palmian shower scene, it really can't be overstated how much credit this tale earns by making the asylum itself a rape-free zone, with a whole sequence devoted to Roy's annoyed rejection of a patient's persistent sexual advances.)

And speaking of the loonies, Kristen soon makes the acquaintance of her ward-mates, the four women the mysterious killer hasn't claimed yet.  These unfortunate souls are Iris, who draws (and is coded lesbian rather than explicitly shown to be, in a bit of Golden Age homage that you'll either find neat or kind of frustrating); Emily, who might have borderline personality disorder, though she's likelier just bored; Sarah, who's afflicted with nymphomania, insofar as being overtly down to fuck could get you sent to crazy jail in 1966; and Zoey, who has regressed back to a childish state, and is thus the goofiest, least-convincing of the five main inmates (as well as the most potentially aggravating).  As Kristen alternates between acclimating herself to her new surroundings and violently attempting to escape them, that indistinct figure we saw in the first scene becomes distinct indeed; and, when Iris and Sarah vanish, it becomes clear that something horrible is happening at North Bend.  Thus, Kristen's escape plans now take on the urgency of pure survival.

That's the main plot, anyway—a slasher set in a mental ward, replete with reasonably well-mounted kills and a medium-high level of tension.  But The Ward is one of those movies where avoiding spoilers threatens to turn a discussion unbearably facile, because The Ward is principally a machine made for delivering its twist ending, a twist ending as cheerfully dumbassed as any slasher you could name.

 Okay, maybe not any that our old friend Brennan Klein could name; but I'm presuming the typical reader isn't also a walking slasher encyclopedia.

Now, The Ward's mystery might seem to flatten into just another case of ghostly revenge once we discover that the original five conspired to kill the sixth, a bully named Alice Hudson—presently returned from the grave with a heart full of hate and a make-up job full of squirmy CGI.  But soon we'll see that this isn't the case at all, for in the extremes of The Ward's third act, Kristen finds out why Alice Hudson has it in for her, too: because Kristen isn't even real.  The only one who is real is Alice herself.  Dr. Stringer has gambled on a long-shot experimental therapy to reintegrate the smashed fragments of Alice's broken mind by inciting the real personality to violently destroy her delusions—and, in its defense, it's some laudably cinematic psychiatry.  So, yes (and Heaven help us), it really is one of those movies.  But The Ward surely handles its reveal with more care than most of its split-personality predecessors.  It beats out a certain contemporary, too, given that The Ward doesn't suppose it has anything important to say about the veteran experience—let alone the Holocaust experience—presumably because Shawn and Michael Rasmussen's script simply never thinks of being that off-puttingly crass.

Of course, it's still very happy to use the substance of the 1960s mental ward drama as the grist for its science fantasy, which isn't as problematic—the exploitation of the medieval era of mental health has a somewhat nobler history in cinema than the exploitation of Nazi death camps—but it would nonetheless be wrong to say it's completely unproblematic, if for no other reason than it completely wipes out any point that it was previously making.  The Ward never had the intention of making a point (which is, true, sort of a point in itself), but there's something to The Ward's collection of misfits that almost feels like it's part of a grander statement about the multifarious ways a woman can be "crazy," solely for failing to conform—whether because she's gay, or because she's straight but too aggressive, or just because she's kind of weird.  But hell, I'll give it this: it's unconventional, to say the least, to give the oppressive mid-century psychiatrist the chance be the good guy for once.  Anyway, The Rasmussens—or maybe just some set decorator, at Carpenter's instigation—do provide us with a detailed blueprint for The Ward's psychological schema.  It's complete bullshit on its face—but, then, isn't bullshit psychology exactly what the preposterous psychological thriller is all about?

And the best part of The Ward's twist—besides, of course, the intrinsic pleasure which the receptive viewer might obtain from such a frivolous lark—is how it repaints the previous hour and a half as a half-hallucinated dream.  Carpenter's managed up to this point to give The Ward the texture of fugue state, and thus the reveal feels less cheap than it probably even should, while also offering an instant cure to all the ills that would otherwise have accrued to the Rasmussens' ramshackle screenplay, which (after all) requires its mental hospital to be run with abject, even cartoonish incompetence.

Well, somebody's not getting an extra dessert tonight.

That, then, leaves us with the machine.  Perhaps the most surprising moving part of The Ward is its performances: no one will ever call Amber Heard a great actor, but there's no denying that she's doing everything this story requires of her, which is to be credibly frightened, frustrated, etc., and to develop a certain distant warmth for the other personality shards Kristen's been generated to protect.  But it's the ensemble as a whole that breathes life into The Ward, rather than any one actor.  Even Laura Leigh Moser pitches her womanchild in the single least obnoxious register possible.  Basically, these five inmates are very easy to watch (and never moreso than in that impromptu dance number), which is no mean feat at all, given that their defining characteristic is insanity, and insanity is typically annoying.  Of course, it's also possible that they're easy to watch simply because nearly all of them look like models—including Zoey, indeed maybe especially Zoey, insofar as her makeup and costume design feel like they were transposed directly from fetish pornography.

And this is one way The Ward fits readily into its contemporary milieu, the Platinum Dunes Era of Horror, and if you insisted Carpenter were actually remaking some forgotten 70s film for Michael Bay, I'd take the accusation seriously.  We have other markers, too—the decent-but-noticeably-cheap CGI, the otherwise surprisingly solid production values, the unintrusively generic yet suitably spooky (non-Carpenter) score, and, lest we forget, the credits sequence constructed from creepy copyright-free etchings and photographs, writing thematic checks the movie itself isn't remotely prepared to cash—but the commitment to casting people so implausibly attractive that they look like they've been Photoshopped is certainly the biggest one.  On the plus side, costume designer Lisa Caryl-Vukas and makeup artist Amy Pruscoe do a tolerably good job of decking the gals out with an ultra-hotness that's appropriate to their decade—albeit with two exceptions.  The good exception is Mamie Gummer's Emily, whose tomboyishness is properly emphasized by her lack of three coats of paint, and by clothes that don't look like they were stolen off a vintage, life-sized Barbie.  The other exception, and the bad exception, is Heard herself, who gets a vaguely hippie-ish braid, and some mom jeans, but in every other respect—particularly her makeup—appears to be a fucking time traveler.

Now that would've been a twist.

Where The Ward departs from its fellows, however, is how Goddamned good the film itself looks—although this difference can be overstated, since the Platinum Dunes flicks are a slickly-made lot (literally, since they typically look like someone hosed down the actors with glycerin).  The Ward, you know, is nothing if it ain't slick.  But it's the kind of slickness that arises from the personal style of the avowed classicist.  The Ward finds Carpenter working with a new cinematographer, Yaron Orbach, and together they do everything they can to live up to Carpenter's legendary collaborations with Dean Cundey—and mostly, they even succeed, offering a film replete with tingly Steadicam shots alongside some striking lighting set-ups.  It may never avoid cliche (it's always a dark and stormy night at North Bend, and you get no points for guessing that we'll find dangerous figures looming in the background, beyond the reach of the focal plane), but only a blind man could possibly dislike the way it looks.

The Ward, ultimately, is the kind of single-minded story that Carpenter always told so well, simply by virtue of taking it seriously—if, crucially, never arrogating to it any actual importance.  Yet as demonstronably unimportant as it is, within Carpenter's craft—fully reinvigorated—there's an idiosyncratic excellence here that's awfully hard to diminish.  The Ward can boast of taking advantage of Carpenter's very finest skills as a director: the sense of instant rapport between the performers; the darkly enjoyable mood conjured by widescreen compositions and elegant photography; and, yes, the pure playfulness that still never manifests as any kind of treason to the tone (and represented most forcefully here with the cheekiest final frame gag in any JC film since either They Live, The Fog, or ever).  The Ward was probably never going to be the crowning achievement of Carpenter's career—but I refuse to be unhappy that his last film saw him return, for one last time, to form.

Score:  8/10

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