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The Unloved, Part 16: The Ward

The latest edition of Scout Tafoya's "The Unloved" is about one of my favorite filmmakers, John Carpenter—specifically his 2010 film "The Ward," starring Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker and Laura Leigh and Lyndsy Fonseca as inmates in a mental hospital that might have a little touch of "Shining"-style psychologically-triggered supernatural action. Like a lot of Carpenter's films, "The Ward" is long on atmosphere and menacing mood and not tremendously interested in plot (though it does have a story, and it hangs together better than you might think). It's worth seeing just for the patented Carpenter stylistic flourishes: the rock-solid, old-school-Hollywood framing; the prowling camerawork that might or might not take the point-of-view of a malevolent being; the droning, hypnotic music; the oddly timed but always welcome bursts of humor and music.

What I like best about this segment, though, is that it's partly an excuse to appreciate Carpenter as a key '70s and '80s filmmaker—one who, like more successful contemporaries from that period, was unfairly criticized as a sensationalist pastiche artist more interested in moment-to-moment impact than overall coherence. He has an extremely specific style that's imitated less often than you might expect, given how many classics and near-classics he directed in the first two decades of his career. Maybe it's rarely imitated because it's so strongly rooted in Carpenter's personality and worldview—that of a committed and skilled if disreputable artist, rather than a gun-for-hire who's mainly interested in getting the job done and moving on. It might also come from Carpenter's powerful foundation in 20th century filmmaking traditions. Like Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante and other directors from the Baby Boomer generation, Carpenter now seems like one of the last of the old-school American genre masters—at least if you judge his work in comparison to the choppier, louder, faster style of many modern horror and science-fiction directors today.

Like so many of his monsters and villains, Carpenter's films never run when they can walk. Scout's video gets at that, especially in a sequence appreciating his gliding, often first-person camera. This video also suggests, without putting too fine a point on it, that Carpenter's voice is sorely missed today, and that it might have been shut out of today's cinema marketplace not just because of his recent, poor box-office track record, but because he's an uncomfortable reminder of a classic era of American filmmaking that was not recognized as classic (aesthetically, anyway) until decades later, and that is kept alive today only in the form of nostalgic shout-outs, like the '70s-styled CinemaScope lens flares in J.J. Abrams' otherwise of-the-moment science fiction blockbusters. John Carpenter is an antique, and that's not meant as a slam: antiques are beautiful reminders of a time when craftsmen took every measurement and hammer-blow seriously, and built things to last.

The Unloved - The Ward from Scout Tafoya on Vimeo.

To watch more of Scout Tafoya's video essays from his series The Unloved, click here.

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