The Ward (2011)

Talk about a filmmaker who’s dropped off the radar.

John Carpenter is an undisputed genre master, responsible for some of the coolest horror/fantasy films of the 20th century, with a tremendous body of work that puts him in some very select cinematic company.

I mean, come on! This guy gave us Halloween, The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, and Escape From New York, not to mention exemplary lesser efforts like They Live, Dark Star, In The Mouth of Madness, Starman, Christine, and Assault on Precinct 13.

For completists, his 1979 made-for-TV biopic Elvis with Kurt Russell is sensational.

That said, Carpenter hasn’t exactly been pushing himself lately. Since 2001’s uneven Ghosts of Mars, he’s mostly been collecting residual checks for all the lame remakes of his earlier films.

The Ward isn’t a spectacular return to form, but it ain’t bad. It’s a modest little fright film that plays out like a cross between Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and something decidedly more Hitchcockian.

Set in “North Bend, Oregon in 1958,” (Editor’s note: I used to live one town over from North Bend. This wasn’t it.) Kristen (Amber Heard) is a runaway who can’t remember her earlier life or why she burned down a farmhouse.

The kindly authorities stick her in an asylum run by the mysterious Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris, from The Terror, Dead Man, and Happiness, among other things) and peopled by an oddball assortment of young lady lunatics.

Not only is Kristen forced to endure some unsavory psychiatric ordeals (“Here. Bite down on this or you’ll bite your tongue off.”) but she and her fellow inmates end up getting stalked by the vengeful ghost of Alice, a former patient.

You’ve seen this sort of thing before, and there are a few plot twists too many, but it’s good to see Carpenter, every bit the craftsman his name implies, doing what he does so well in The Ward, namely exiling the viewer to a darkly menacing world where no one can be trusted.

It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To (2006)

There are a thousand things wrong with It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To—and I still dug it.

Director and writer (also editor, composer, and several other titles) Tony Wash had the brass to make his film on a budget so puny you can practically hear the car washes, garage sales, and bake sales (not to mention the ringing of credit cards) that went into the financing.

There are continuity errors, mushy sound quality, community theater acting, and it looks like it was shot on a flip phonw. Even so, Wash and his creative cohorts have some audacity and style. True, it’s a young Sam Raimi’s style, but nonetheless…

Sarah (Adrienne Fischer) thinks her friends have forgotten her 18th birthday. Geez, how could they forget? It’s on Halloween! And that means a costume party in an old house with a sinister reputation.

Part of that reputation, truthfully, should be because of its periodic ability to drastically change size and shape. The interior layout of Burkitt Manor is incomprehensible.

It turns out Sarah’s bland assortment of acquaintances have hit upon the brilliant idea of rigging up the old Burkitt Manor (where in either 1908 or 1930 a despotic husband beat his family into hamburger) as a haunted house to scare the bejeebers out of her.

Who knew kids were so motivated?

After 67 or so slow exposition scenes, the Karo syrup finally starts to fly, as the evil spirit of the house takes possession of young schmuck Travis (Oliver Lucach), and the body count clock is ticking.

Fortunately, we learn (in a training scene that includes a shower interlude—good call, Tony) Sarah is an expert in martial arts and her friends thoughtfully chipped in to buy her a katana! So we get a savage kung-fu showdown—with the plucky Sarah dressed as Elvira—in addition to buckets of viscera and a little gratuitous nudity.

It’s My Party and I’ll Die If I Want To is an amateur production with a capital “A”, even with a Tom Savini cameo. But Wash and his team work hard to get most of the details right.

And he borrows liberally from Raimi (the main creature is pretty much a Deadite), George Romero (The EC Comics segues are straight out of Creep Show), John Carpenter, and even Tarantino, which should be enough for horror geeks to suck on like an all-day lollipop.

It was for me, anyway. Someone give this kid a few bucks, eh?

Beneath Still Waters (2005)


I figured Beneath Still Waters was worth a gamble since Brian (Bride of Re-Animator) Yuzna produced and directed this Spanish-UK collaboration. While there is ample gore and some stellar scenes of Bosch-like depravity, the pace is glacial—endless talky exposition and needless character development.

Nutshell: A town in Northern Spain is flooded after the construction of a new dam. The cover story is that the dam brings jobs, cheap power, and prosperity to the region, but the naked truth is that the “drowned town” was inhabited by a kinky cannibal cult led by a sinister Aleister Crowley acolyte named Salas (Patrick Gordon, as the Richard Lynch-style creepy cult leader).

Fast-forward 40 years later and the ghost or spirit or reanimated corpse of the evil magician returns accompanied by a very small band of fairly scary zombies, and a vendetta against the granddaughter of the former mayor who flooded the town.

There’s a good chunk of memorably nightmarish imagery thanks to the hallucinatory, low-tech, Euro-art school FX (think Méliès rather than Lucas), and Salas’s habit of tearing his victims’ heads off never gets old.

But it’s a pretty slow 90 minutes, most of which look like a made-for-TV movie from the 1970s, so prepare for rough sledding.