The Ward ** ½
Directed by: John Carpenter.
Written by: Michael Rasmussen & Shawn Rasmussen.
Starring: Amber Heard (Kristen), Mamie Gummer (Emily), Danielle Panabaker (Sarah), Laura-Leigh (Zoey), Lyndsy Fonseca (Iris), Jared Harris (Dr. Stringer), Sydney Sweeney (Young Alice), Mika Boorem (Alice), Susanna Burney (Nurse Lundt), Sean Cook (Jimmy).
John Carpenter was one of the few people involved with the short lived horror series “Masters of Horror” to truly earn that title. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Carpenter was responsible for some of the truly creepiest, scariest movies around with films like Halloween and The Thing. He even proved he can stretch beyond horror, into action and science fiction with equal skill. His films feel refreshingly old fashioned, even when they are set in the future – Westerns are an obvious favorite of his, even when set in modern day LA (Assault on Precinct 13) or Mars (his last theatrical film before this, a decade ago, Ghosts of Mars). Carpenter was a true horror auteur – you could always tell his films apart for his contemporaries, and his steadfast refusal to change could be the reason why aside from those two Master of Horror episodes he made, we have not really heard from him in 10 years. So, I think many horror fans like myself were eagerly anticipating his latest film The Ward. I have a feeling that like me, they will end up disappointed.
Set in the 1960s, The Ward is about a young woman, Kristen (Amber Heard), who we first see setting fire to a farmhouse while scantily clad, and then carted off to the most under populated mental ward in movie history. Here she meets here new ward mates – Emily (Mamie Gummer), who is clearly insane in some way, Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), who bats her eyes at every male orderly in sight, Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), who draws everything and Zoey (Laura-Leigh) who acts like a little girl. They are overseen by a Nurse Ratched type, and a psychiatrist who we don’t really trust, since he is played by Jared Harris. He wants to cure Kristen, of what we’re not at first sure, but she only wants out. And soon, she wants to know who the ghost she keeps seeing around the ward is – especially when her ward mates start disappearing.
Before watching The Ward, I was hoping for an old fashioned horror movie from Carpenter. I am tired of the overly graphic, so called torture porn movies that aim to disgust viewers rather than scare them. These started with the Saw series, and continued to devolve into the Hostel films, and other horrid movies. American horror films are once again at a crossroads, because it seems like people are just as tired as I am with all these torture films, but nothing really has come into to replace them (but if we get more films like James Wan’s Insidious earlier this year, an example of how to do an old fashioned ghost story right, I’ll be happy). To be fair, I think Carpenter wants to do old fashioned horror, but for the first time, he seems to have relented a bit. I am tired of seeing pretty young girls strapped to gurneys and brutally murdered, and while Carpenter accomplishes this much more skill, and much less graphic bloodletting, than many contemporary filmmakers, I still had a hard time caring that much about it, and after a promising start got increasingly bored with The Ward as it went along.
It must be noted that the performances in the film are actually quite good – especially Heard who has skill to match her beauty, and seems comfortable in exploitation films like this – although she is much better in Drive Angry, one of my biggest guilty pleasures of this year. And Carpenter is still a striking visual filmmaking, so while the story creaks along to its inevitable conclusion (which really, you should seem coming way before the character do), the film is always interesting to look at. I’m not sure if The Ward is proof that Carpenter has finally lost his edge, or just evidence that someone needs to give him a better screenplay. Either way, The Ward ultimately, disappoints.