Aside from Hitchcock, there's no filmmaker whose work I've devoured as thoroughly as John Carpenter's. His bleak vision in regard to all genres has been a source of cinematic comfort to me since I was a teen, so when I heard that his long awaited next film - the first feature length thing he's done since 2001's Ghosts of Mars - was coming, I got a little excited. After waiting through that awkward "It's independently distributed and I live in Iowa and don't have fancy cable so I guess I have to wait til DVD" phase, The Ward finally came to me this week. And now, here we are.
The Ward takes us back to Oregon in 1966, and lets us inside the doors of a large mental hospital. The building looks ominous from the outside, and Carpenter reminds us of its imposing size with a few sweeping shots from the exterior throughout the film. Though we're shown such a large facility, almost all of the film takes place in one wing of the facility - unsurprisingly known as "The Ward" - where young women with their own problems come together to get cured.
The cast of characters includes several young actresses who have made their mark in Hollywood, led by current It Girl Amber Heard of Drive Angry, Zombieland, and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. Her Kristen is joined on the ward by Friday the 13th and The Crazies co-star Danielle Panabaker, Kick-Ass and Hot Tub Time Machine co-star Lyndsy Fonseca, and Mamie Gummer, who is most recognizable as the daughter of Meryl Streep. The girls fit into varying roles through the film - Heard's Kristen is the new girl who refuses to conform, Panabaker is the snooty girl, Gummer is the tough girl, Fonseca is the ignorant artist, and relative newcomer Laura-Leigh is the childish girl. Each actress does a fine job fitting into relatively stereotypical roles.
The girls' doctor is played by Jared Harris - who I used to think was just one of those Adam Sandler cronies, but who is apparently a real actor - who doesn't really have a lot to do in the film until the final act. This is certainly the girls' story, and Harris' character isn't given the chance to steal scenes like Donald Pleasence's doctor did in Halloween. No, this is almost certainly Kristen's story, and Heard takes the lead in almost every scene as she investigates the strange disappearances that are occurring on The Ward.
Michael & Shawn Rassmussen, the brothers who wrote the film, tread simple horror ground with this story, which insists that the ghost of a former patient haunts The Ward. There are parallels that can be made to the Nightmare on Elm Street films - which like to imply that the heroine is insane when she sees evil things - and the film delicately balances between slasher and ghost story at times. The story doesn't inspire much thought - it's a relatively paint by numbers "I saw something, something strange is happening, I have to solve it and escape" tale - and the ending is sure to lose some viewers.
But Carpenter is here. Even if he doesn't seem to be on top of his game (and, if we're being honest, I don't think he's been on top of his game since the '80s), he still shows an ability to surprise the viewer and provide some scares. The timing of his trademark "stingers" that made Halloween so effective is still evident, and there were a few moments when The Ward got me jumping - even though I knew it was going to try to make me jump. Carpenter also shows that he still loves hallways, and his use of a fixed camera position to show us empty areas creates tension as it always has. The opening shots of the film are a direct throwback to Halloween - so much so that excited The Mike was fist-pumping on his couch - and Carpenter's choice to show us quiet areas that could instantly become dangerous is a perfect reminder that the man is still here and ready to scare us. Unlike many recent horror films - Insidious comes to mind - Carpenter is willing to wait for the scare to come to us, and his patience gives the few strong scares in the film that much more power.
The Ward doesn't succeed all the time - there are some gaps between meaningful events, a couple of violent scenes seem out of place, the effects look silly at times, and the ending leaves something to be desired. But I'm sitting here and talking about it relating to Halloween, and not comparing it to Carpenter's biggest missteps like Village of the Damned or Memoirs of an Invisible Man. This doesn't feel like the Carpenter film we were used to pre-1990 (back when he had control over the story, the film, and the music most of the time) but it at least shows that there's still some punch left in my second favorite director. The Ward works well enough and is a good old fashioned piece of horror cinema, and if you took Carpenter's name off it people would be calling it things like "a pleasant surprise". Carpenter's work and the strong cast certainly elevate the film to heights that a lower budget version of the story wouldn't reach, and the result is a decent little psychological horror film.
I will still long for the days when Carpenter had total control - a Carpenter musical score would have helped this flick immensely, BTW - but I'm willing to accept The Ward as a nice change of pace in the current scene and a friendly reminder that John Carpenter still loves us horror fans. Don't expect a Carpenter masterpiece, but give The Ward a chance.