John Carpenter returns to the director’s chair after a ten year absence with The Ward. But is this classically styled haunted house story any good?
Oh, to be a fly on the wall of John Carpenter’s casting call for The Ward’s nubile collection of gorgeous women. I can just see the script meetings and the sweaty-palm realisation that the new film could get away with serving up officially the hottest cast of female crazies ever to set foot in a mental institution. I’m reminded of that scene in Gideon Raff’s Homeland where the escort-girl-turned-CIA-undercover-agent screens prostitutes for her boss, the Royal Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Ward’s disappointing twist, that throws lights on the coming together of disproportionately attractive yet supposedly mentally disabled girls, threatens to debunk what can only be described as a myth purported by Milos Forman and his Cuckoo’s Nest. If it really is like this then I want to be committed in North Bend, Oregon and thrown in with its mentalists.
But I don’t blame horror maestro Carpenter, who has been out of the game for a decade, for turning his attentions to Hollywood’s up and comers. I can’t argue with his casting for The Ward – it serves its purpose and the actors themselves all do a fine job, particularly Amber Heard in the lead role as powerful figure Kristen and Lyndsy Fonseca as mild-mannered but naïve patient Iris. It is such a shame they are all hampered by a stale script, clichéd stereotyping and characterless dialogue.
The Ward begins with Kristen burning down a house and having no recollection as to her reasons. As she watches the house burning, clearly in some distress, a police patrol car pulls up and two clairvoyant officers step out. I say clairvoyant since, instead of checking to see if this distraught girl is okay since it appears her house is burning to the ground, they intuitively assume she’s the culprit and manhandle her into the back of their vehicle. What happened to being innocent until proven guilty? It’s an awkward footing that the film never fully recovers from – and it happens within the first two minutes.
“I can just see the script meetings and the sweaty-palm realisation that the new film could get away with serving up officially the hottest cast of female crazies ever to set foot in a mental institution.”
Kristen is taken to North Bend Psychiatric Hospital circa 1966 where she is placed in a room recently vacated following the disappearance of a girl named Tammy. Kristen is immediately suspicious – she feels a presence in her room, and sees a girl walking the corridors at night even though they are all locked away during darkness. The other girls seem oblivious to the strange occurrences and mock Kristen, saying she’ll never get out. But when fellow patient Iris also disappears Kristen encourages the others to hatch a plan of escape, before it is too late.
John Carpenter has been vacant from the director’s chair for far too long. Despite his work in the last fifteen years, which includes middle and late nineties films like Vampires, Escape From L.A., and In The Mouth of Madness, achieving mixed fortunes with fans and critics, the man who masterminded Halloween and The Thing still has the magic touch. I’m not surprised he’s made a return as he’s watched, over the last ten years, other filmmakers try to recreate his genius. Rob Zombie made one of the worst films ever with his remake of Halloween, while Rupert Wainwright released the equally inept The Fog. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. had more success with The Thing, but since Carpenter’s film was a remake itself, you start thinking – overkill.
In The Ward, Carpenter proves he still knows how to construct a good scare. His slow, controlled camera movements and atmospheric use of sound and music help build the tension. And once he has the heart racing and the blood pumping, even though you know there’s a big jump coming, the great director is so attune as to how to deliver it, the lasting punch to the head reverberates for a long time afterward. I was particularly pleased with Carpenter’s use of music. He often composes his own soundtracks but for The Ward he employs the talents of Mark Kilian who concocts a delightfully macabre backdrop that reminds of Goblin’s work for Dario Argento’s films like Suspiria and Deep Red.
But unfortunately the film’s good points are clouded behind the bad. The blame lies at the feet of writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen who have cobbled together characters and storylines from other films and hung them out to dry on the worst twist imaginable. Without giving it away, it is the sort of ending that makes everything that happened before it – essentially, seventy minutes of screen time – completely worthless.
Carpenter does his best with the bad material, and has to take some of the blame for not adapting it better, but how else do you shoot the scene from Terminator 2 where Sarah Connor tries to escape the institution with a poisonous needle stuck in the neck of a hospital employee? Since James Cameron did it exceptionally well in his film, you might as well copy it, almost word for word, shot for shot. It is an appalling scene that not only blatantly copies from Terminator 2, but “borrows” the dialogue too. Up until that point you wonder why the Rasmussen’s characters seem to lack individuality and then it all becomes clear. These characters are obviously constructed from men who’ve spent too much time watching movies and not enough time in the sun.
“The Ward features one or two jump-out-of-your-seat moments akin to the horror mastermind’s prowess within the genre but is hampered at every turn by a script as lifeless as the rotting corpse stalking the patients at the dead of night.”
And while the twist answers some of the head-scratching queries you find yourself with throughout the film – why are all the women gorgeous twenty-odd year olds, why don’t any of the doctors seem to realise patients are going missing, why does the mysterious phantom, who can clearly cause havoc, attack the patients and not the doctors or carers? However, you’ve grown so tired of the clichéd plotting, the stereotypical caricatures, and the gnawing fact none of these mental institution inmates are in fact mentally disturbed, you’ve lost interest by the time the disappointing revelation arrives. In fact, what is most disturbing is that electroshock treatment and mental health incarceration has never seemed like such a walk in the park. That is if you take the ghost haunting these women out of the equation.
It is great to see John Carpenter back behind the camera. The Ward features one or two jump-out-of-your-seat moments akin to the horror mastermind’s prowess within the genre but is hampered at every turn by a script as lifeless as the rotting corpse stalking the patients at the dead of night.
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen
Starring: Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mika Boorem, Jared Harris
Released: 2010 / Genre: Horror / Country: USA / IMDB
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See also: Top 10 John Carpenter Films