Archive for category thriller

‘The Ward’ Pissed Me Off (And It’s Not What You Think)

One of these days, I’m going to have to write a John Carpenter Project.

As a movie nerd, I’m in love with Carpenter’s work by definition. Halloween would be enough, but the man also made a movie about a bottle of green slime that can animate the dead and possess Alice Cooper through advanced mathematics.

And he nailed it.

But if you’re reading this, you know that it’ll take me a while to get to the eventual John Carpenter Project because my schedule is booked with all of the cocaine parties and supermodel orgies that come with being an unpaid movie blogger with over 30 Twitter followers.

So, instead, I’m going to talk about The Ward now.

I’ve only now gotten around to seeing Carpenter’s first feature since 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, partly because it didn’t come through theaters in my area and I wanted to make sure I’d see it in the right conditions to really examine it. I wasn’t going to screen the film on my phone or some other bullshit because, if nothing else, Carpenter has earned my undivided attention.

I also probably waited longer than I should to see the film because, frankly, everybody whose opinion I respect agreed that it sucked. And the only thing that could possibly kill the buzz of a new John Carpenter horror film is finding out that the old John Carpenter is gone.

So I was nervous when I cued it up and I got the Jagermeister ready in case it turned out to be a poop fest, but then I discovered something kinda infuriating:

The Ward is a proper John Carpenter movie.

OK, it’s definitely not the best John Carpenter movie. It’s got a really thin, derivative script built around a plot that’s already been scooped by two other films, one from 2003 and the other from 2010 (I’ll leave those of you who’ve seen The Ward to guess which movies I’m referencing.)

So, yeah, it’s not good, but it’s nowhere near Carpenter’s worst film, either. In fact, I’d say that it’s probably his best feature film since 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness.

(I’m specifically talking about features here, because his Masters of Horror entry “Cigarette Burns” is pretty damn great.)

The filmmaking in The Ward is good-to-great. Carpenter uses light, fog, and shadow like the old master that he is, dragging out a legitimate, earned sense of terror that distracted me from that growing sense in the back of my mind that I knew where this movie was going, and that the destination was dumb.

But what really set me to typing here is that The Ward is a return to a classic type of horror filmmaking that’s long since vanished from studio-funded pictures. The film has all of its fanboy hot buttons covered:

  • The movie relies on genuine atmosphere and actual tension rather than a string of false jump scares. (There are jump scares, to be sure, but the movie doesn’t lean on them and it’s never revealed to be somebody’s fucking cat or something. When you jump, it’s usually because the monster just showed up and made you jump.)
  • The movie rates a near-zero on computer graphics. Nothing kills horror like digital blood or CGI ghost effects, and Carpenter knows that. The Ward relies almost entirely on practical makeup and gore.
  • In particular, the antagonist monster is very nicely realized, completely in-camera, and with makeup that calls back to Carpenter’s best work. The critter would have fit right in to the final act of Prince of Darkness.
  • The actors mostly deliver legitimate, strong performances, especially Jared Harris, Amber Heard, and Dan Anderson. No easy task considering the flimsy state of the material.
  • There’s no choppy editing or music video style-farts. It’s just a simple horror story told with clean, classic filmmaking. It’s not too flat. It’s not overdone.
  • The script may be ridiculously derivative and predictable, but it’s still an original story, not a remake.

The Ward is not a great horror movie, but it’s exactly the type of horror movie that we’ve begged to see and which the studios never make because they believe “old-school” horror can’t find support.

And we proved them right.

If Carpenter has a history of taking C-material and turning it into a B+, well then The Ward is D material and he turned it into a C+. We owed him a nice round of applause for returning to form and for still being the John Carpenter we recognized.

(And just in case someone wants to make the case that we would have been there for the film had it been better, let me remind you that The Wolfman and A Nightmare on Elm Street both hit theaters in 2010 and both received way, way more people despite being exactly the same kind of hyper-stylized remake crap we’re supposed to hate. Which one did you pay to see in theaters that year, Nightmare or The Ward? I’m not proud of my answer.)

But instead we (and again, I’m including myself) didn’t support The Ward and it died a quiet death, secretly turning the screw one more twist toward the death of classical horror filmmaking. Once again, we begged for a certain type of movie, and then pushed our plate away when it was served to us.

If The Ward is our last John Carpenter feature film, it’ll be a damn shame. And it’ll be our fault.

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Penn #5 – Night Moves (1975)

How does this movie work? It must be something in the water.

The Story

The hunt for a runaway teen (Melanie Griffith) lures P.I. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) away from Los Angeles and his unfaithful wife, to the sweaty shores of the Florida Keys, where the teen is boning her way through a community of stuntmen and cargo pilots. Blame the heat; before he can even book a flight back to Cali, Harry falls for the girl’s guardian, Paula (Jennifer Warren). An underwater corpse forces Harry to rethink paradise, and he soon learns that little—in fact, pretty much nothing—is as it seems. Harry’s search for the truth uncovers a conspiracy and a smuggling ring, but a cryptic last reveal suggests the whole story will elude Harry forever.

The Production

There’s a hole in Arthur Penn’s film career. For a period stretching from 1970-1973, Penn didn’t work and retreated into his personal life. He directed no TV or theatre, and his only film was a short contribution to the documentary Visions of Eight. Penn didn’t like to speak about the gap, saying only that he was motivated by something deeply personal. Was it the Olympic massacre, something he witnessed firsthand while filming in Munich? Was it the death of Bobby Kennedy, who Penn liked and had spoken to in person soon before he was assassinated? Whatever the cause, it’s clear that by the time Penn returned to directing, his mood had darkened.

Penn claimed that he chose Night Moves more or less at random, grabbing “the first script [he] had to hand” when he was ready to work. The story, then titled The Dark Tower, had been written by Alan Sharp (Rob Roy) and nearly helmed by Sydney Pollack before the project’s implosion dropped the script fortuitously within Penn’s reach. Penn saw in the film a chance to establish a new kind of film detective, one not rooted in the hard-nosed, grayscale film noirs, but who reflected his confused, uncertain times. It was Penn who suggested the new title, forever saving Stephen King geeks a lifetime of answering questions with the words “no, the book.”

But it couldn’t stop this single “gunslinger” joke.

The writers’ strike of 1973 halted revisions with the production date looming, and Penn found himself shooting an unfinished screenplay on a tight deadline. Penn predicted the chaotic shoot would result in a flop, and audiences agreed. Night Moves was a sizable failure for the studio, derailing Jennifer Warren’s career and landing the first half of a two-punch fatality that Penn never truly recovered from—his next film was the colossal bomb, The Missouri Breaks.

Still, the ever-trusty European critics immediately hailed Night Moves as a masterpiece, and American critics soon joined the cry. Today, Night Moves is widely regarded as one of the great neo-noirs, a bleak indictment of the Watergate era, and one of Penn’s greatest films.

And, incidentally, Melanie Griffith’s.

The Issue

Night Moves is a very different kind of detective story. Written after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, shot at the peak of the Watergate scandal, and released after President Nixon’s resignation, Night Moves reflects its troubled times by suggesting easy answers are a thing of the past, or at least that we’re too screwed up to find them. Penn disliked the leering nature of detectives—especially in the shadow of Watergate—and used the troubled Harry Moseby to make a simple case: don’t hire a person to look through your baggage, because they’re sure to bring some of their own.

The Scene

The best scene is the film’s finale, which gets more attention below. Instead, I’d like to point out this excellent runner-up that somebody was nice enough to post up on YouTube. Harry’s reaction to his wife’s affair provides the emotional juice of the film’s first half, but it also reveals just how problematic Harry is as a hero. What should a man do when he finds he’s been cuckolded? Flip out and go crazy? Admit defeat? Harry’s unusual choice is to simply watch. Watch, and wait. The subsequent confrontation is equally bizarre and confounding.

Overall

Night Moves is a great film, one of the best neo-noirs and kin to heavyweights like Chinatown and Se7en. It’s also a very challenging film. The story is a maze of convoluted twists and turns with no solutions. The photography is sun drenched, but feels somehow devoid of warmth or open spaces. The tension seems to resolve itself, stall, and then roar back to life before dying altogether because, spoiler alert, it’s ultimately meaningless. The movie is all jab and no left hook, but then the bell finally sounds and we realize we’ve just been beaten within an inch of our lives.

By a plaAHHH!

Night Moves was one of a loose collection of films from the early ‘70s, movies that seemed to reflect the escalating paranoia and anxiety that audiences were feeling about the world around them. (Today, we just make louder giant robots.) Gene Hackman starred in three of the best. From 1970-1975, ironically the same years that Arthur Penn took his hiatus, Hackman starred in films like The French Connection, The Conversation (a close thematic cousin to Night Moves, and a great double feature), and this film. His performance is starkly different in each, and equally essential. He was in the spring of his career, and his work in this loose trilogy could rate against the best work of any actor in the history of the movies. He’s that good. His portrayal of Harry Moseby is brash, furious, and occasionally vulnerable. Harry is a fairly unlikable character—a detective who is shitty at his job—but Hackman makes him real. We empathize with Harry when he loses everything: the girl, the case, the man in the plane. We sense that he won’t recover, that this was his chance to become whole, and he blew it.

Protip: Betting against James Woods is always a bad idea.

This downer ending is still remarkably satisfying and one of the all-time greats, often overlooked but no less powerful for its anonymity. The finale acts as a Rosetta stone, the key that deciphers the rest of the film, although it works in reverse. Rather than the ending suddenly making sense of the plot, we are made to realize that, in fact, the plot was never meant to make sense. When I first saw the big reveal, I initially thought that it made perfect sense. Later, I found the holes and tried to piece it together again. I have a working theory of the plot now, but I wouldn’t call it seaworthy. That’s the mad genius behind Penn’s film. It pretends to tell you a secret, but its secret is that there are always more secrets. Those who seek are left to drift, aimless in the currents. To go forward is to go around again and wind up where you started. The only escape is to drown.

If that sounds grim, well then that’s noir. We all remember Humphrey Bogart solving the case of the funny looking dingus, but the best noir stories always played out under a death shroud, as if the characters had glanced up and seen the swords hanging by a string above them. In Out of the Past, Jeff redeems his mistakes, but there’s a price to pay in blood. Mike Hammer works so hard to find the great whatisit in Kiss Me Deadly, but his effort is just so much tinder for the fire.

Night Moves is cut from the same black cloth, but flips it over. Penn and Sharp set Harry Moseby on a case that he’s ill-equipped to solve, and he never stands a chance. The title is a play on words, referring to a series of “knight moves” a great chess champion failed to see, costing him a crucial match. Harry saw the match, replays it on his board, second guesses the chess player, but still fails to see the knights surrounding him. Perhaps he believed he was invulnerable, like the detectives of old. In the ‘40s, Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe would have turned the tables on the table turners. But the year is 1975, the world has changed, and Harry is left to spin circles in the sea.

The Arthur Penn Project

14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)

13. Four Friends (1981)

12. Target (1985)

11. Dead of Winter (1987)

10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)

9. Inside (1996)

8. Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

7. The Chase (1966)

6. The Left Handed Gun (1958)

5. Night Moves (1975)

4. ???

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Penn #11 – Dead of Winter (1987)

A long, slow descent into mediocrity.

The Story

Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen) is a struggling actress hired to stand in for an AWOL movie star. To get the gig, all she has to do is pass a private audition with the film’s director. At his isolated, snowbound estate. And cut her hair, wear different clothes, and otherwise transform into the missing girl. Hey, New York apartments don’t rent themselves, am I right?

As you may have guessed, Katie has fallen for a classic con, the ol’ “kidnap an actress who looks like a dead girl to blackmail the dead girl’s twin sister” game. There’s a sucker born every minute. Katie is drugged, locked in the house, and terrorized by Dr. Lewis, who passes her off as an insane patient. As Katie’s husband searches for her, she uses her acting skills to bluff through the house, eventually murdering her would-be murderers and winning her freedom.

“Can I still put this on my resume?”

The Production

Arthur Penn never meant to make Dead of Winter. Penn was originally approached as a middleman, a guy who could grease the wheels at MGM for screenwriters Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone, friends of Penn’s son from Wesleyan College. Penn liked their script—a quasi-remake of 1945’s My Name is Julia Ross—and agreed to help them find financing. Unfortunately, problems arose during shooting. According to Penn, the man hired to direct the film was too green, and his homage-heavy shooting style stymied the crew. As MGM debated whether to kill the film, an embarrassed Penn agreed to step in and see the movie over the finish line. It didn’t make much difference. Dead of Winter had an anemic box office take, even for 1987’s low standards, and faded into obscurity soon after.

The Scene

Dead of Winter passes as a thriller partly because it cribs its best moments from more famous films. It’s only near the movie’s bloody climax that it finally lurches into life on its own merits. The audience knows that Katie’s husband is nearby with help, but Mary doesn’t know that, and her murder is imminent. Drugged and barely able to stand, Katie nonetheless goes on murderlock and culls the villain population of the house in a last-ditch escape attempt. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, her primary captor, Dr. Lewis, is the hardest to kill. Did I say confined? Actually, he uses the goddamn thing as a launching pad and claws his way around the house trying to get one good hand around Katie’s throat. The film finally earns its own tension, and stops feeling like a karaoke version of Hitchcock’s greatest hits.

All jokes aside: this made me poop a little.

The Issue

This heading has been dead weight so far, and that won’t change today because Dead of Winter is pretty much devoid of any sort of higher thought. It’s a decent enough potboiler, the equivalent of summer beach reading, but Penn didn’t have a personal stake in it, and so it’s missing any attention to broader issues. I promise that this category will earn its keep eventually.

Overall

Dead of Winter is assembled from spare parts and directed by a man who didn’t want the job. The movie has no stars and a plot that loiters on the far outskirts of credibility. It’s not faint praise, then, to admit that, you know, actually it’s kind of watchable.

Mostly.

That’s not quite right. A better description for the movie might be “sporadically entertaining.” There’s just enough atmosphere and mystery to carry an audience through the first two acts, which is when the story happily hands the ball off to the flippin’ batshit insane. Let’s take stock of what this movie has going on:

  • Murderous twins
  • A third woman who could be their doppelganger
  • A villain who is handi-capable of murdering you
  • Roddy McDowell and a bag of goldfish

Together at last.

Yet, why rank the film so low on the list? Is everything from here up a jackpot classic? Laws, no. For starters, Dead of Winter ranks low because it’s tough to parse how much of the film really belongs to Penn. When Roddy McDowell takes an evil glass of milk upstairs, is that Penn’s homage to Suspicion or the original director’s? Penn’s work is always his own; he almost never displays the open reverence that identified the film school brats of the 70s and beyond, and yet Dead of Winter is full of visual references. Is it truly a Penn film?

With Roddy McDowell, the milk is less evil and more “where are my warm sugar cookies?”

Second, as affable as Dead of Winter can be, it’s as forgettable as a midnight piss break. The film aims to please, even if accomplishing that goal means catching a parachute out of your brainpan before you can take a moment to look for plot holes. Penn has bigger debacles (just wait for next week, woof), but those fail in style while Dead of Winter is content to exist in isolation.

Not that it’s a total loss. Dead of Winter is a demo reel on how to shoot old-school suspense. Penn was in television when the rules on how to tell cheap, effective stories were still being written. The man knew his way around a plot point. The camera work in this film is aggressive and disorienting, echoing Mary’s fall down the rabbit hole as gets the scope of her problem. There’s also a recurring visual theme about doubles, foreshadowing the twins and Mary’s transformation. The film is slight, but it takes itself just seriously enough to earn goodwill. Penn never wanted to shoot a thriller, but he wasn’t half-bad. This was a fitting resume credit from the man who originated Wait Until Dark on Broadway; a nice, competent thriller.

With incompetent bad guys.

Unfortunately, “competent” is about the best I can muster up for Dead of Winter. There are worse movies in the thriller genre, but plenty better. This is C material handed to an A director, and the result is a B movie. Hey, it’s baseball season, so in honor of our mangled hero, I’ve got a mangled metaphor: For a film so obsessed with doubles, all Dead of Winter can manage is a solid single.

The Arthur Penn Project

14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)

13. Four Friends (1981)

12. Target (1985)

11. Dead of Winter (1987)

10. ???

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