John Carpenter’s ‘The Ward’ – His First Film in a Decade, and Maybe His Last

Master John Carpenter described “The Ward,” his first feature length movie in ten years, best through a video message at the Toronto International Film Festival:

“’The Ward’ is an old school horror movie made by an old school director.”

It’s good to know this going in as Carpenter is not trying to reinvent the wheel or outdo all other horror releases out now. The plot of “The Ward” is as old fashioned as they come, and it allows Mr. Carpenter to exercise the skills he has perfected for many years. It’s not on a par with “The Thing” or “Halloween,” but in the end I didn’t care. For me it was an absorbing movie which kept me entertained throughout its running time, and it was far more entertaining than those summer blockbusters duds “Green Lantern” or “Bad Teacher.”

“The Ward” stars Amber Heard as Kristen, a young woman whom we first see her indulging in a little pyromania, and not the kind Def Leppard made an album about. The police pick Kristen up after she burns down an abandoned farmhouse, and she gets sent straight to the ward of the movie’s title. Her fellow patients are not necessarily the “Girl, Interrupted” type, and Angelina Jolie is nowhere to be found. The intentions of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) appear ambiguous at best, and dealing with the chief orderly and Nurse Lundt, both who are deadly serious, is no picnic.

Actually, let me segue here for a moment; Nurse Lundt’s name seems to rhyme with a certain derogatory word. Which one you say? Well… You can just figure that out on your own. I wonder if this was intentional on the part of screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, or perhaps it is just the name of someone they knew from way back. Well, whatever the case, Lundt certainly gives Nurse Ratched a run for her money in the seriously mean category, but her voice is not as lovely as Louise Fletcher’s was.

Now this being a psychiatric ward, it is mandatory that a ghost is roaming the halls. Kristen first sees it while taking a shower and, of course, everyone says she’s a nut which is redundant considering she’s staying in a mental institution. Then again, the patients may know more about what’s going on than they initially admit. I hate to think they’ve spent all their time there without seeing at least one ghost, you know? Anyway, patients start to disappear one by one, and Kristen aims to find out what happened to them on top of escaping the ward before it claims her as its next victim.

Now whatever you think of Carpenter’s directorial skills these days, his efforts in generating suspense are still strong. Carpenter is smart to not reveal all the important plot details right away, and he holds you within his grasp throughout as he leaves you guessing or imagining what’s really going on. Even if you see the ending coming from a mile away, the journey to it was an entertaining one for me.

I was skimming through another review of “The Ward” online which said Heard was as believable a mental patient as Charlize Theron was a mine worker in “North Country.” Now what is that supposed to mean? That she’s too good looking to be in a psychiatric ward? Give me a break! Heard does good work here portraying a strong-willed protagonist you want to root for. She’s engaging and believable, and while others may see her as being miscast, I did not. By the way, I thought Theron was great in “North Country” and I utterly accepted her as a mine worker. And in case that one reviewer didn’t notice, both actresses were in “North Country” and played different versions of the same character.

Lyndsy Fonseca is very good as Iris, the first girl to befriend Kristen. She appears to be the most emotionally balanced of the patients, and Fonseca makes her character’s awareness all the more convincing. Mamie Gummer gives a good performance as Emily, and she gives Emily a complexity she might otherwise not have had. Danielle Panabaker makes her character Sarah the epitome of Carly Simon’s classic tune “You’re So Vain,” and she’s a kick to watch. And Laura Leigh rounds out this strong group of actresses by making Zoey a convincingly traumatized person whose escape from reality consists of her acting like a little girl.

In terms of horror, Carpenter still makes effective use of cheap scares. While they have been used to death by dozens of filmmakers, he always makes them count. This is especially the case with “The Ward’s” final scene which truly took me by surprise. I should warn you though that the movie has one of those pull out the rug from under you kind of endings which I am really sick of. However, Carpenter doesn’t telegraph the ending to us like others typically do, so I’m willing to let it pass this time.

If there’s anything missing from “The Ward,” it’s Carpenter’s music which I am a big fan of, and his unique sounds were missed. Not that I want to knock Mark Kilian’s work here as he gives the film an appropriately atmospheric score which works very well, and it does have a bit of that Carpenter sound to it. Still, I yearn for a new score from Carpenter or even his son Cody who did amazing work on “Masters of Horror.”

Am I being too forgiving to “The Ward?” Perhaps. I’ve always been a big admirer of Carpenter’s work, and I even have good things to say about “Ghosts of Mars.” Many have expressed their big disappointment with “The Ward” as they want it to be on a par with “Halloween” and “The Thing.” Others found it not gory enough, but then again Carpenter’s strongest films don’t always rely on it like the “Saw” movies do. Personally, I don’t want to spend time comparing “The Ward” to his best movies because to do so would just be asking us to hate it before the opening credits even begin. You can only let an artist remain in the shadow of their past work for so long until you realize your spoiling the experience for yourself.

With “The Ward,” Carpenter was looking for a movie with a tight schedule and a limited location which didn’t require him to stay for a long time or get completely exhausted after shooting only half of it. With the limited resources he had, he made “The Ward” worth watching, and I got very involved in the plights of the characters. There’s nothing original on display here, and it may very well remind you of a gazillion other movies like it, but I’m glad the master finally directed a feature film again after so long. I just hope we don’t have to wait another ten years for Carpenter’s next film. And if there’s anyway Kurt Russell can star in it, you can sure bet I will be watching it on opening day!

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