John Carpenter’s The Ward

Where does Silent Running (1972) get its reputation and its loudly singing choir of appreciation from?

It’s a great looking film, as you might expect of the first film directed by Douglas Trumbull, previously the special effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Beyond that visual bravura though the film is a mess. Bruce Dern finding the limits of his range. Cute robots bumbling around. Joan Baez singing earnestly about issues with the political insight of a sock puppet, and not a particularly widely-travelled sock puppet at that. It’s an ordeal.

The worst aspect of the film though is the idiocy at work in the story. Having taken the Earth’s last remaining plants (filed away on a spaceship for reasons I have forgotten) out past the orbit of Saturn to escape the destructive plans of the authorities, hippie botanist Bruce Dern wonders why the plants begin to shrivel and die.

After much agonising he realises that they have no sunlight and that plants need light to live.

I reckon the standards must have been slipping on the day NASA interviewed him. My own botanical expertise is sparse, but I’ve got enough left over from O Level Biology to remember the whole light thing. And he’s supposed to be the botanist in charge.

This hobbled narrative, it breaks my heart to report, was written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino and Steve Bochco. Washburn went on to write The Deerhunter. Cimino, in addition to his directing career, scripted Thunderbolt And Lightfoot and Magnum Force. Bochco pioneered the complex character driven, multi-stranded TV drama we thrive on today with his revolutionary Hill Street Blues.

How they fluffed it so badly in Silent Running baffles me.

It’s a film with a long shadow though. Duncan Jones cited it as an influence on his magnificent movie Moon, and Andrew Stanton credits the making of WALL-E to it as well.

My favourite post-Silent Running movie though appeared comparatively quickly, two years later.

Dark Star (1974) is a bit of a rickety film. Its student roots and its paltry budget are quite evident throughout. It is also very lovable though, and if its parodic nature becomes clumsily broad from time to time it doesn’t really matter because there are some very well thought-out aspects to it. Particularly pleasing is the desperate philosophical argument one of the crew has with a sentient bomb, trying to persuade it not to blow up.

 

The two writers behind the film were Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter. O’Bannon went on to re-work some of Dark Star into the industrial gothic of Alien. John Carpenter, who also directed Dark Star, went on to have one of the most celebrated genre careers throughout the seventies and eighties.

There are, I think, three crucial Carpenter films: Halloween, The Thing and Prince Of Darkness.

A lot of the rest of his career is noteworthy too. Ghosts of Mars and Starman are negligible. Escape From LA and Memoirs Of An Invisible Man are actually awful. The balance though is cool beans in awesome sauce served up on a hot bed of WIN!

  • Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) – An entirely successful, quite shocking urban update of Rio Bravo.
  • The Fog (1980) – You would get a more sensibly written plot if you just threw Alphabetti Spaghetti at a rotating egg whisk for two hours, but logic aside this is a great, scary film.
  • Escape From New York (1981) – An iconic turn from Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken. The film is still being imitated today. Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008) owes it a great deal.
  • Christine (1983) – That rara avis, a good Stephen King adaptation. Not flashy, just well judged.
  • Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – A joyous romp which only makes sense, as my pal Lawrence pointed out to me, when you understand that Kurt Russell’s character Jack Burton is the sidekick rather than the hero, and that in fact it is Wang Chi (played by Dennis Dun) who is the protagonist. It makes viewing the film a completely different experience.
  • They Live (1988) – Satirical dystopian wrestling fun.
  • Vampires (1998) – Lively action-horror with a laconic James Woods, which suffers slightly from being released a decade after Kathryn Bigelow ploughed similar ground with her far superior film Near Dark (1987).

There are Carpenter films I haven’t seen. I will have to leave it to others to tell you whether or not In The Mouth Of Madness, Village Of The Damned, or his TV movies Elvis and Someone’s Watching Me! are any good. His three masterpieces are worth revisiting any day of the week though.

Halloween (1978) remains as terrifying now as it was the first time I saw it on TV in a house on my own. It utterly freaked me out. I was in my teens, and I still had to check behind all the furniture and curtains before I went to bed. It’s effective at a primal level. Who isn’t terrified of a blank-faced, indestructible, murderous monster? Stellar work on the character acting and Carpenter’s almost Kubrickian sense of space and its boundaries make this a film which far exceeds any expectations you can reasonably have of it.

In his version of The Thing (1982) Carpenter stripped out a lot of what lamed the (still very good) Howard Hawks version, The Thing From Another World and returned to the original source material (the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell), much as the Coens have done recently with True Grit. With its ensemble male cast, Spartan environment and escalating sense of threat The Thing manages to be both a supreme thriller and at the same time a nudging enquiry into the nature of identity and how we perceive others. It’s fabulously rich in subtext.

Prince Of Darkness (1987) is a personal favourite. I love it because of its attempts to transplant and nurture a Quatermass narrative in eighties America. Basically scientists find Satan in an abandoned church in LA. If you haven’t already seen this, then please consider rooting it out. Life does not give us many opportunities to see Alice Cooper being stabbed to death with a bicycle. Here’s one to seize.

Carpenter has been quite quiet since 2001’s pretty awful The Ghosts Of Mars. He directed two episodes of the gratifyingly gory TV anthology show Masters Of Horror, but apart from that, and some writing and producing work on the joyless remakes of Halloween and The Fog he has been absent from the screen.

Which makes the appearance of John Carpenter’s The Ward pretty big news for those of us with no girlfriends and an empty Friday evening ahead of us.

And is it any good? Well the short answer has to be no. The slightly longer answer has to be, not really.

But the full answer is this:

It is an old school, jump every five minutes, spooky haunted hospital, horror film. If you want mimsy stuff like character development and emotions other than the ones that sit on the spectrum between worry and terror then go and watch Rabbithole or Blue Valentine or something. This is not for you.

Amber Heard stars as Kristen, a young woman confined to a mental hospital after committing an initially un-contextualised arson attack on a farm building. As the other patients in the hospital start disappearing she becomes convinced that there is a malignant supernatural presence on the ward.

The film doesn’t really make awfully much sense, though the wrap up (dismayingly familiar from at least two other films of recent vintage) at least has a stab at closure. The shocks along the way are fun though, and as close as some of us are going to get to a full physical workout.

The Ward is a 15 certificate, which makes me realise how far we’ve come since the days of the Video Nasty witch hunts. The horror field is currently so rife with string em up, strip em and chop bits off em gore porn that when something like The Ward comes along with its relative paucity of gore and reliance instead on supernatural dread, it’s almost light relief.

When I alluded to it being old school a couple of paragraphs ago I meant it. This is the sort of horror you would get in the late seventies or early eighties. It reminded me in that respect of Ti West’s under-valued 2009 film The House Of The Devil. That film was set in the eighties which neatly sidestepped the deadening narrative effect that mobile phones and the Internet can have on a story.

The Ward is set in the sixties and has a similar low-tech feel. This is a good thing.

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time by saying you have to go and see this. If you don’t think you’re going to like it then you’re not going to like it.

If like me, however, you’ve got Carpenter love going on then you will not begrudge the hour and a half it takes to get from the establishing steady-cam prowl through deserted corridors to the closing credits.

2 comments on “John Carpenter’s The Ward

  1. John Carpenter is one of my favourite filmmakers and along with Luc Besson (another fav; please note that they are favourites, I’m not putting them forward as “great” directors), his work helped me to understand the theory of the film director as auteur in the early days of my taking films seriously.

    In 1994 I was fortunate enough to meet Mr Carpenter and can personally attest to the dictum that you should never meet your heroes. I had queued all day at the Nation Film Theatre of a ticket to attend an Audience with JC and then to see the UK premiere of In the Mouth of Madness; third in a queue that ultimately contained some 200 people waiting for the 20 reserved tickets and any returns that might be available.

    Being so close to the front I obtained my ticket and took my seat for the Audience and was thoroughly entertained by the conversation on stage and the big screen clips of several films I had only ever experienced on video or late night telly (the whole portable b/w under the covers deal). And then came the questions and answers session…

    Always, always have your question prepared in your head before you ask it! Mine was, “Which of your films do you feel is closest to your original conception of it?” That’s a fair enough question and if only that had been what came out of my mouth! To this day I don’t really know what I asked but tragically I know that there is a video tape somewhere of the event and my labyrinthine syntax tortured enquiry; the NFT always taped these events for posterity. So far so humiliating but these things happen and the film though flawed was enjoyable. Then came the signing…

    I had pondered hard on what to take to the event. What item could I have with me upon which would be inscribed a permanent reminder of this momentous event in my development as a cinematic gourmand? In the end I obtained a copy of one of only two books then available on Mr Carpenter’s oeuvre, Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter. A weighty academic tome and one that cost for me a princely sum; it had been covetously examined by my fellow queuers as we compared the objects we had brought along for JC to place his signature upon. With this presentation for signing of this fine object my fumbling question would be forgotten and I would be redeemed! I had also purchased a cheap A4 copy of a Japanese release poster of The Thing, this for a friend who was unable to accompany me to the event; I would also get this signed and would then present it to my friend thus proving what a magnanimous human being I was.

    The queue for signing was joined and as we approached the desk I smugly observed the tawdry assorted items my fellow fans presented to Mr C. Kind words were exchanged but I knew that he was simply humouring these poor shmucks and that he was awaiting someone to present him with something of true worth. My turn came and first I presented the poster and explained it was for a friend unable to attend that day. This “little” item produced much comment, JC had never seen this image before and was much taken with it. Passing it to his companions and saying he would like a copy of it for himself. What a result! If this little swiftly purchased item could produce such interest and approval from John, yes John for surely we were now destined to be close friends, then what would he make of the purchase which I had put time and effort into choosing and obtaining. Perhaps he would even add me to the credits of his next film? Nothing too ostentatious, perhaps just a brief note to thank me personally for helping him understand what an artist he actually was? I presented the book…

    Even now it pains me to write of it. “Oh that”: like daggers thrust into my chest by Michael Myers himself! Like the tyres of Christine crushing my torso to the asphalt! Like being made to watch Memoirs of an Invisible Man without being able to rip out my own eyes! “Oh that” and a scribble and my humiliation was complete. I have the book with its well nigh illegible scribble on the shelf still. Occasionally I think about taking it down to look at but still the wounds are too fresh and the sadness too much to bear.

    Never meet your heroes indeed; not because they’ll let you down, though sometimes they might far more likely you’ll make a prick of yourself in some way and that is far far worse!

    Ps. I got a photo with him as well which I treasure. He’s a surprisingly bony man. 🙂

  2. Thanks Lawrence 🙂

    Whilst I was bookselling I met a fair few heroes (and people that I just vaguely admired), and it is my pleasure to report that all of the following were lovely: David Attenborough, Ludovic Kennedy, Ian Rankin, Iain Banks, Lindsey Davies, Christopher Brookmyre, Magnus Magnusson, Martin Bell, Kate Adie, Barry Norman, John Sargeant and Clive Barker.

    I just missed Tony Benn (he popped in on my day off just to sign some stock, unannounced) and Michael Palin (I moved to Inverness before he did his Aberdeen event), but by all accounts they were lovely too.

    I sold books at a Margaret Thatcher event but she was too busy entertaining Aberdeen’s oil aristocracy to hobnob with us, so I can’t gauge her.

    In fact I only ever met one author who behaved like a flatulating baboon’s arsehole, and whilst I am quite happy to share their identity with anyone privately, I choose not to do so in this public forum.

    The one time I ever made a prick of myself in front of an author was when I bumped into Oliver Sacks on a bookshop staircase in Cambridge, but I’m sure I’ve told that story…

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