Written by: Michael Rasmussen & Shawn Rasmussen
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Lyndsy Fonesca, and Danielle Panabaker
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“If I were you I'd watch out, new girl.”
We haven’t really heard much from John Carpenter for the past decade; ever since Ghost of Mars failed to impress, he basically went on hiatus and only emerged for a few reasons: to direct a couple of Masters of Horror episodes, to give generic statements about his films being remade, and to collect residual checks. All of this is fine, of course, and even Carpenter himself makes no bones about his existence, which is now dedicated to basketball, video games, beer, and cigarettes. He’s earned the right to do that, but I’d definitely prefer it if he could get excited about being behind the camera again. His latest film certainly marks his return there, at least in a literal sense; as the film premiered over a year ago and then struggled to find distribution, I began to wonder how much of the old master’s heart was in the proceedings. The only way to find out for sure is to finally enter The Ward.
Inside the titular ward is Kristen (Amber Heard), who’s been thrown in and locked up after she burns down a farmhouse. Already there is a group of similarly disturbed girls who dream of escaping their confinement; however, something sinister is at work to make sure that never happens. As if the brutal treatment they receive from the staff isn’t enough, they’re also haunted by a malevolent specter that intends to kill them all.
The Ward isn’t a grand return to form for Carpenter, but it’s a decent one that feels like he's getting his feet wet again. My knee-jerk reaction is to declare it to be better than Ghost of Mars (also better than Ghost of Mars: most movies), though I haven’t seen that one since it bowed in theaters (sadly, The Ward offers nothing as outrageous as Ice Cube punching Natasha Henstridge in the face). The film never really escapes its mediocre trappings, as everything just sort of walks through the motions. In particular, the script just feels content to be a typical psychological thriller that’s driven by a few mysteries (“Who’s the ghost?” “Why is Kristen even nuts in the first place?” “What happened to all the previous girls at the asylum?”) that wraps itself up in a twist that’s recycled from a few different films from half a decade ago. Admittedly, the notion behind the twist here is interesting; without spoiling it, I’ll just say that I like the idea that the mind has its own defense mechanisms to deal with trauma. They’re kind of like psychotic white blood cells, if you will.
Most unfortunate is that it's difficult to find Carpenter here. If not for the credits’ insistence that this is John Carpenter’s The Ward, I’m not sure if I’d believe it. Besides the obvious use of scope and that cool, elegant font that’s always used for Carpenter titles, there’s precious little style (with the exception of some moody establishing shots and roving camera work). I think it would have been interesting to see Carpenter tackle this script twenty years ago, back when maybe he would have been more committed to elevating it above its generic morass. Because despite itself, I think the film lends itself to some good horror thrills that could have been delivered by Carpenter’s old, measured approach. His sense of subtlety and elegance is often pummeled by a modern horror approach that relies on quick cuts and loud shocks.
To give a simple example, consider the simple scares found here; there’s a bunch of scenes where the ghost’s grisly face pops into the frame. Twenty years ago, Carpenter might have made you question what you saw--that face would have been something more insidious and subtle, probably resting in the background. Here, it’s made staggeringly obvious as it’s thrust onto the screen and accompanied by loud shrieks. In fact, those loud chair jumps are the film’s only genuine scares, though I hesitate to even call them genuine because they’re just so loud that you can’t help but feel a jolt. They’re rendered even more cheap by their relative lack of tension, as there’s little build or atmosphere. Music is always vital to the Carpenter experience, but he didn’t provide the score himself this time out. Instead handed those duties off Mark Kilian, who provides a nice, moody opening theme that quickly devolves into the usual shrieks and loud thuds.
If anything I did enjoy the cast. Heard is emerging as one of Hollywood’s best young ass-kicking women, and she’s got a strong presence here. Her character is quite aggressive and certainly not as docile as some of the others. The rest of the cast is well-rounded. Danielle Panabaker and Lyndsy Fonesca are other emerging faces who what they can with the scraps they’ve been given. Said scraps are clichés, of course, as it soon becomes clear that Panabaker is the sort-of-catty one, Fonesca is the nice one, Mamie Gummer is the oddball, and Laura Leigh is the semi-mute childish one. I suppose that the nature of the film’s eventual revelation almost forgives the one-dimensional nature of its characters, but that doesn’t make it any easier to muster up much enthusiasm for them as the film rolls on (in fact, I’d say retrospect makes it even more difficult to care about any of them).
They’re plunged into a sea of similar clichés: ruthless orderlies, a callous nurse, and a non-descript doctor who may or may not be working in their best interests. One of the more frustrating things here is the undercooked period setting. I just realized my failure to mention the 60s setting in the plot synopsis, probably because it’s utterly inconsequential. Aside from a cursory mention of shock therapy being outlawed, there’s no real interest in exploring the underlying themes of a bunch of girls being locked away in an asylum. Even something like Sucker Punch at least had implications and subtext on its mind, but The Ward is fine with being a standard horror show, complete with its usual jolts and grisly effects. Nicotero and Berger are aboard to handle the latter, and they provide a couple of effective gore moments, though the ghastly makeup effects leave a bit to be desired.
I wanted very much to like The Ward; in fact, I mentioned on Twitter that I’d drive a ridiculous length to go see it in theaters, and Carpenter himself expressed his gratitude for that. So while I wasn’t enthralled by the film itself, it at least let me briefly interact with a cinematic hero on a social networking platform. At any rate, the closest The Ward ever came to my neck of the woods was Memphis, which isn’t very close at all, so I ended up having to settle for the Blu-ray, which was just released by Arc Entertainment. The disc itself is more than adequate, as it boasts both a strong transfer and a ridiculously loud DTS-MA track, which only makes the preponderance of jump scares even more jarring. Fans of special features will be disappointed that there’s only a trailer and a commentary (with Carpenter and Jared Harris). As a lifelong Carpenter fan, I don’t really regret my purchase; in fact, I’m oddly satisfied to know that it might partially fund his next beer run. The next swig’s on me, Carp, but I hope your next film effort is a little bit more satisfying. Rent it!
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