Ghoul, Interrupted

or One Slew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The Ward (2010)
Written by Michael & Shawn Rasmussen, Directed by: John Carpenter

My recent interest in horror movies has inevitably led my path to cross with that of John Carpenter.  Now, I was pretty familiar with his more action-oriented work product, but as he's arguably neck-and-neck with Wes Craven in terms of influence on the horror genre, it was inevitable that I'd end up watching his classic work from the 70s and 80s.  Carpenter kind of fell out of favor after that, which is a shame, because I found The Ward to be one of the most satisfying horror movies I've ever seen.

The movie doesn't exactly throw you into the action as much as wake you up to find that you're already hurtling through a plate glass window.  The classic horror opening -- a teen girl in terror meets an unfortunate end -- is so abbreviated that it leaves one struggling to catch up from "go."  This is immediately followed by another teen girl in terror.  She sets fire to a farm house and is gathered up by the police in short order.

Before she -- or we -- know it, she's the newest resident of the North Bend Mental Hospital of North Bend, Oregon... and it's 1966.  At this point, I must admit, I was feeling highly skeptical.  A lot was going on and none of it was making a hell of a lot of sense.  As it turns out, this is all as it should be.

As the girl, Kristen, explores the secrets of the ward, and the mysteries about herself, we discover the answers along with her.  She shares the ward with four other girls, a frequently absent or inconveniently present staff, and a very vengeful ghost. The other girls each have specifically individuated personalities (or personality archetypes anyway), which is more than can be said for a lot of genre movies.  The staff is menacing and controlling, except for the times when they appear to be gone altogether.  I had to mutter an "Oh come ON..." when the action led Kristen through a kitchenette with an unsecured meat slicer on the counter (mercifully NOT an implement of death here).  As the story progresses, the staff appear to be covering up the ghost's deadly deeds, building upon the mystery of just what is going on.

Act 1 works on blending familiar ghost story and mental patient tropes.  Act 2 becomes a somewhat standard one-by-one reduction of cast members with asylum-themed gore.  More questions are raised; not the least of which is, "Is anyone RUNNING this place?"

It's in Act 3 that The Ward reveals all its been holding back.  As the ghost story unfolded, I became more and more skeptical.  It seemed fairly rote.  The part that keeps it interesting is the ongoing question of what others know, and when they seem to know it.  Everyone is holding information back from Kristen, and the way that information is revealed constitutes the backbone of the narrative, rather than a mere arbitrary series of deaths (as in Carpenter's Halloween).  In Act 3 there was a major confrontation with the ghost and... something that should not happen in a ghost story.  This had me rolling my eyes and ready to write the whole thing off.  Then came the big reveal.  Now, I often pick up on third act reveals in the first five minutes of a movie (sometimes just from the poster), but I didn't see this one coming until maybe 5 minutes beforehand because Carpenter knows the song so well and wasted so few notes in the introduction.

There was, of course, a SUPER obvious horror movie final minute, but as a horror movie, it was obligated to offer nothing less.  So often, the last minute of a horror movie sneaks in one last "Gotcha!" just for the sake of making you jump, which can betray the narrative arc.  This one makes sense...ish in the context of the story.

The performances were above average for the genre and did a lot to sell the story, although I was never quite able to accept Amber Heard (Kristen) as a citizen of the 60s.  The crimping iron was overplayed in the effort to make her look raggedy.  I was also left wanting more screen time for Jared Harris as the resident shrink.  He has a remarkable ability to be likeable and unsettling all at once, which keeps one guessing about his motives, even as one wants to trust him.

I don't know that I was ever scared by The Ward, but I remained intrigued from start to finish, and I felt that my patience as a viewer was rewarded in a way that so many movies simply do not deliver these days.

Then Suddenly...

Having spent my life up until now really not caring about (if not actively repelled by) horror movies, I find that I've developed an interest in them recently.

I chalk this up to a lowered tolerance for gore and an heightened appetite for cheap thrills brought on by a heavy diet of our modern action flicks.

As I reflect upon this, a few more things occur to me... 

One, that many of this generation's filmmakers were heavily influenced by the horror movies of their youth.  Joss Whedon, of course, had 2 major TV series built around vampires and sundry other supernatural beings and co-wrote one of the best horror movies in recent years, the deconstructionist The Cabin in the Woods, which came out the same year as his mega-massive ultra-blockbuster, The Avengers.  Zach Snyder, director of this year's Man of Steel, got his big-boy pants with his remake of zombie classic Dawn of the Dead.

Two, that our special effects have gotten SO much more realistic that the old ways seem pretty quaint anymore.  I watched the notoriously gory Re-Animator the other night, and it played as pure camp.  A severed head with dangling gore was just surgical tubing and stage blood.  It was clear that the head, sitting in a pan, was just an actor poking his head through a hole in the table.  This was just... fun.  Meanwhile, the recent film The Raven included a scene cribbed from The Pit and The Pendulum where they felt obligated to show the ENTIRE slicing-through of a human body, cut by cut.  It wasn't scary.  It wasn't fun.  It was just crass and uncomfortable.  The mind had already pictured what would happen, but had to wait, and wait, as the film caught up in masturbatory detail.  I'd rather watch the old stuff, and not just because The Raven mostly sucked.

Three, that horror stories represent a very fundamental form of storytelling.  They have essential story elements and push specific emotional reactions, like romances and pornography.  Our filmmaking has become MUCH more targeted and manipulative of emotional reactions.  One need look no farther than the commercial success and influence of Michael Bay to see this.  As much as it makes you hate yourself, it's almost impossible not to feel his fingers working your heart-stings like a marionette with schmaltzy slow motion power ballad sequences.  Yeah, you know the one I mean.  Well, horror films are all about the emotional reaction, and obviously some take more evolved approaches to this than others.  There's "BOO! Ha, I GOT you!" and the ever-so-slightly creeping dread or dangerous curiosity, and for good or ill, it seems that the "Boo!" approach has a more direct impact on the safer commercial vehicles.

I've noticed something lately...

I've been watching movies that got terrible reviews, and have found that a LOT of them weren't that bad... or weren't bad at all.  I'm still figuring out what to make of this.  Naturally my first concern was that my own taste had been corrupted, but a little bit of consideration put that to rest.

What I came up with instead is -- short version -- the internet,  The long version is a deeper consideration of the way that the internet polarizes opinions, and has developed into an environment where anger is taken for granted as a default behavior.  It's tainted everything from opinions on movies to personal relationships all the way on up to the management of a once-great nation.  The complete story of the internet's impact on human life has not yet been told, and I think there are some subplots that are going to come roaring to the surface in later chapters.