Thumped’s Random DVD Trip #08 – The Ward & Panic Button

Thumped’s Random Dvd trip: Wherein Hector Grey enters the Xtravision across the road and grabs the first couple of things that appear in the shelf. This week: The Ward & Panic Button.

Thumped’s Random Dvd trip: Wherein Hector Grey enters the Xtravision across the road and grabs the first couple of things that appear in the shelf.

Horrorshow! John Carpenter is back after 10 years, but is The Ward any use? And the internet, is it a prick? Panic Button knows.

Panic Button: the name is wrong, and other than one fleeting reference late on, it’s irrelevant. But it conjures something in the mind. Panic and such. Madness, crazed abandon, wanton destruction, terror and confusion. It even has that perennial faint praise emblazoned on the dvd cover: “The best British horror movie in years“. I’ve seen that odious canard doing the round on a few movies in the past, some of which were just about okay, most of which were utter shit. Djinn, anyone? Long Time Dead? Hush? To pigeonhole Panic Button as a slashy-horror, with screams and confusion reigning on the cover, seems to be a marketing ploy, and while it’s not exactly misleading, neither is it entirely legitimate. There seems to be a bit more to this number working away under the surface.

It starts out promisingly enough, if utter shit horrahshow! is your thing, which I find it is. 4 complete strangers have won the trip of a lifetime, on a private jet, to the eternal city of light apples, New York, thanks to social networking site, a kind of Facebook meets Amazon yoke. Needless to say, they’re all wankers. They are ushered onto a swanky, 4 seated private jet, and have to relinquish their mobile phones for the duration of the flight, as it will invalidate the “game” that they’ll be playing as in flight entertainment. The game involves an animated alligator asking each participant probing questions about themselves. The questions get more and more personal and the characters are revealed as shallow, two-faced, callous, lying tools, whose online personae differ somewhat from the visceral, banal realities. Sound familiar? These insights into their personalities are gleaned from their internet usage, particularly on the site. Oh my, but it makes you think, dunt it? Every click you make is stored somewhere. Everything you’ve ever said to someone online, every picture you’ve posted, every jazz video you’ve watched, and how many times etc and so forth. It’s all there. At some stage Dave, who’s a real shit, mentions in passing the Data Protection Act. That won’t help you here, friend! Not a bit of it. There are WAYS. We’re not privy to the ways, but we understand that there are ways.

It turns out that the game isn’t for benefit of the website, and that there’s something more sinister at work. The characters are plotted against each other, the tiny fuselage becomes claustrophobic, and dangerous, as (not so) random punters from the characters friend lists are tortured and murdered on the screens, in blurry, pixilised, bad youtube-like footage, every time one of the punters fails to comply with the game’s rules. The players must now question how far they are willing to go in order to save what they can.

The idea is close to hackneyed at this stage, random strangers with a shared, if unbeknownst, past, trapped in a confined space, Saw did it, Cube, others too. Panic Button goes just beyond the boundaries in that it’s a thoroughly modern film, one that obviously couldn’t have been made even ten years ago, and for a movie featuring the Internets, it isn’t quite as bumbling as the ones that have gone before. Computers don’t control the weather, passwords don’t appear in huge, blinking red letters on the screen, a misplaced keystroke does not blow up the Taj Mahal. We’re entering an age where the filmmakers are conversant with the average laptop and also our internet usage and online selves; the flippant way no one ever reads the Terms and Conditions, or chooses to ignore them, the casual bullying or outright lies, the complicity of watching morally ambiguous videos online. If you’re caught watching child pornography, you’re a nonce, and likely to be in front of the beak, and yet one can watch all the beheadings one wants, without becoming a murderer. Oh, it’s a curious conundrum.

The movie is essentially one set, a couple of rooms, a handful of actors. Although computers are at its very core, it doesn’t bore us to death with CGI or demons or any of that guff. It doesn’t even need gore, no iron maidens, no having to shit out your guts to get a key out of your spleen which you need to open a safe to a tire iron that you use to smash your own teeth out with in order to kill a random stranger with a molar before your skeleton turns to lava in 37 seconds because you were depressed in 1985 and don’t appreciate the beauty of life. It works rather well, playing on the horror of dealing with your privacy settings on Facebook rather than the horror of dealing with, oh I don’t know, a fucking vampire. The idea that every vapid pronouncement and status update that you’ve ever entered is stored somewhere is terrifying enough, thank you.

You see, who needs a budget, especially when making a horrorslashthriller movie. After all, the fear is all in the head, it’s suggestion that creates the terror. That, a hockey mask and an incredibly sharp knife. These are things that John Carpenter knows intrinsically, and we love him for it. Way back in the day he could invoke horror out of so very little, and it now seems a shame that he was ever given budgets, so much so, that he doesn’t even do his own music any more. The Ward is set in 1966, presumably for the medieval psychiatry practices such as ECT, which wouldn’t fly in the modern day, and starts when out hero, Kristin, is admitted to North Bend (imagine all the “around the bend” jokes) asylum after being caught, red handed, burning a house down with a confused, semi beatified look on her face. It’s good that we’re not going to have to deal with the usual “why am I here, I’m not crazy!” asylum crap, because it’s pretty clear that she is mentalised. They put Kristin in The Ward, populated by four young, firm, bobby soxed, plastic beauties. A sorority ward. A ward, it would seem, constructed solely with the inevitable shower scene in mind. And yet Kristin wants to escape. Escape, because the ward is haunted by the ghost of a past inmate who disappeared mysteriously, a skinny wraith with a condom over her head who’s picking off these nubile young things one…by…one.

And so it goes. It’s hardly original, and the denouement comes at you like a freight train, with a maladroit inevitability. Carpenter still uses all the old tropes to get you going, a head appearing here and there, lingering shots of empty corridors and the like. It could have been so much worse with a less assured hand at the helm, and at least it isn’t just a run of the mill gore-flick, with an evermore dastardly demise for each of the characters; a vivisection, being forced to eat your own mother, death by a thousand pokes of a finger, whatever is cool these days. Old Johnny C doesn’t need to be so gauche. The greatest horrors are all upstairs. We’ll imagine the worst just by seeing someone carted off on a gurney, thrashing and screaming or an electrical storm strobing the room and a power cut will have us shoving our mickeys into our bodies in fear if done correctly.

Much of what passes for horror in the modern cinema could, and should, learn from the simplicity that Carpenter used to such presentimental effect in his early days. In The Fog, a couple of shadows moving about in a grey mist, with that spooky, apprehensive music that used to be the hallmark of his films scared the bejayses out of me when I saw it first. Perhaps audiences are too sophisticated these days, and expect more than a rubber hand to experience terror. They need to see an exposed ribcage. They need to see our protagonists suffer and die to be absolutely sure that it’s happened, and in as gory a way as possible. In fact, that’s not sophistication at all, rather a lack of it. But Carpenter can only go so far, perhaps a better, less clichéd script could have helped, perhaps he’s just out of touch. The ghost in this yarn just isn’t scary, and the set up is ludicrously facile, the tension seemingly just one failed escape attempt after another. Too many far too obvious questions are raised in the viewers mind, too many cracks in the veneer that the reveal can’t disguise. It’s a silly, derivative film.

One may be of the mind that the muse has left our venerable Mister Carpenter, were it not for the fact that Ghost of Mars pretty conclusively proved that a number of years ago. Not a resounding return to form, just a kind of dull, by the numbers showcase for some blonde bint called Amber Heard who’s probably going to be the next briefly big thing and get to be Josh Hartnett’s love interest in a failed film noir rip off where it’s always raining and there’s a character called Scoot who used to box but is now kind of dumb, and she manipulates Scoot into attempting to kill Josh and she does all the publicity interview barefoot, with her legs crossed, saying shit like; “oh it’s great to work with Josh, he’s just SO talented”, which we all know just isn’t true because he’s a hammer faced goon with evil slits for eyes. Meanwhile John Carpenter will thumb his wad and wonder just where it all went wrong.

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