Monday, October 24, 2011

Movie Monday: The Thing/The Ward

I happened to see two movies related to one of my favorite directors, John Carpenter, in the same day, so I thought I'd do another Movie Monday double feature and talk about the new remake of The Thing, then check in what Carpenter himself came up with in his newest, The Ward.

First is The Thing, and I have to say I went into this movie with very low expectations. I'm such a fan of Carpenter's 1982 remake (although that film is not really a remake of the 1951 original), that I figured this was maybe little more than one of those modern-day cash-ins, where they take the name of a beloved horror film from the 70s or 80s and then make some lame-ass PG-13 version of it. Apparently I was misinformed, because for a long time I thought this new movie was a remake, when in fact its a prequel. Even still, I didn't expect much when the lights went down.
But it only took a couple of minutes before I really got hooked into the story--a bunch of Norwegian scientists and researchers find a giant spaceship hidden under the ice in Antarctica, and call in a specialist, Kate Lloyd (the easy-on-the-eyes Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to investigate the life-form they also found, frozen in a block of ice a few miles away.

Admittedly, most of the story of The Thing is the same as the 1982 film, but I think my love of that film simultaneously allowed me to just give myself over to the remake; I just love the whole idea of a bunch of people cut off from the rest of the world, as an alien starts taking them over, one by one.

Of course, I completely loved the Star Wars movies too, and that didn't make The Phantom Menace a good film, and maybe in a year or so I'll sit down and watch The Thing again and have a different opinion. But all I know is I found this prequel compelling, filled with tension, solid acting, and (mostly) decent f/x.
The film is, of course, not even close to being perfect, or even anywhere near as good as Carpenter's: most of the characters are cyphers, so when they get assimilated into the alien it doesn't have much of an impact (other than "Ugh, gross!" of course). And while I did find the film suitably tense, that feeling doesn't build: basically once The Thing gets out of the ice, the film is at "11" and stays there, which is a little wearying.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a good job as the main character, but since we don't get a single scene of her alone, it was hard (for me at least) to get as invested as I was with Kurt Russell's MacReady. And the film does come dangerously close to being one of those tedious exercises where way too much is explained during a sequence on the aliens' ship.

But overall I enjoyed The Thing quite a bit--it has a nice vague ending, and I loved how it tied itself into the 1982 film during the credits, making it a nice companion piece. Is this film really necessary? Probably not, but I've seen many, many worse horror movies than this. Case in point:
I was so excited when I heard that John Carpenter, having not made a film in a decade, was back with a new movie! Then I read some of the reviews, which were middling at best, but generally negative. Most critics said it was a very generic movie, not the kind of thing you'd expect from John Carpenter, whose films are so distinctive. But I was determined to judge for myself.
The Ward opens with a young woman, looking bruised and battered, burning down a house. After setting it aflame, she staggers out, falls to her knees, and watches it burn. In the distance, a police car approaches:

But instead of comforting the girl, the cops violently grab her, and drag her off, kicking and screaming, into their squad car:
I felt like we were in safe hands here, cinematically, since the cops are being unnecessarily rough and, as far as we know, completely unfair--they didn't know she set the fire, so why are they roughing her up? The world we know being turned upside down is a Carpenter specialty, so this seemed like a great start.
Unfortunately, once the young woman (named Kristen, played by Amber Heard) is taken to a nearby mental institution, The Ward settles into a very predictable, if not tedious, rut. We meet a quiet, studios psychiatrist (Dr. Stringer, played by Jared Harris), and a group of other patients that, to me, didn't for a moment feel like real people: there's the Really Crazy Girl, the Mousy Girl, and the Obviously-Hot-But-Wears-Glasses-So-That-Means-She's-Ugly Girl.

Pretty quickly we see the place is stalked by some sort of ghost, who attacks the girls at different points:
Kristen keeps insisting this ghost is real, and Dr. Stringer keeps insisting she's coo-coo for cocoa-puffs. None of this is particularly scary, and at one point when it seemed like the film was wrapping up, I noticed I had only been watching it for 45 minutes, which means we were only halfway through. I couldn't believe it! I can't think of a single John Carpenter movie--even when the film itself wasn't very good--that I considered boring. But the whole middle section of The Ward could barely hold my attention.

Near the end, we learn the truth about Kristen (which I won't reveal here) and why she ended up torching the house that we saw at the beginning.
The Ward has a "shock" ending, which really wasn't that much of a shock at all; nevertheless, I appreciated the downer, "everything is f*cked" feel to it, which seemed very John Carpenter to me.

So, like most people, I was very disappointed with The Ward. Its not a horrible movie by any means; its just dull, and a dull movie is the last thing you'd expect from John Carpenter.

If you're looking for some scares, I'd say go see The Thing, and let's hope that The Ward is merely John Carpenter's first step back into filmmaking. The man has more great films in him, I just know it!


Kevin said...

Great review(s), Rob! I'm a huge Carpenter fan, myself, so it was great to see another weighing in. I've not seen "The Thing" yet, but I plan to see it Friday. I have stayed away from "The Ward" chiefly because I knew Carpenter did not write it. That may be the key as to why you found it boring.

Caffeinated Joe said...

Skipped over your reviews, as I haven't seen either film yet, but hope to. Carpenter has directed some of my favorite stuff, including my favorite movie of all, Halloween. I am always hopeful he has another great film in there. Always hopeful.

rob! said...

Kevin---Maybe. He also didn't do the music, so this one does seem more "hands off" than usual. Some billionaire film fan needs to hand JC a pile of money and say "Here. Make the best movie you can."

Joe--Yep. Even tho his last couple have been (IMO) his weakest, I'm still convinced he's still got it.

Butch said...

Interesting take on The Ward Rob. I don't know if you follow the Final Girl blog by Stacie Ponder but I read her review first (sorry LOL). I was tempted to pick this up for the same reasons you guys were. After reading your reviews, I'm glad I passed. Did you see Carpenter's entry in the Masters of Horror "Cigarette Burns"? That felt more like old Carpenter to me, was glad I picked it up. Very much worth your time if you've never seen it.
I plan on seeing The Thing sequel/prequel/remake but I think it's already off the theatres here. Guess I'll have to wait until it gets to the $2 movies.

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