Man, did I miss John Carpenter. The Ward may not rank among his best work but it’s still a return to top form for the director, and easily his best film in more than fifteen, maybe even twenty years. That we’re allowing for the ten year break between The Ward and Ghosts of Mars is worth noting, but not backhanded. Despite a frustratingly familiar ending, this is one of the best spook stories we’ve seen in a long time, more satisfying than the gimmicky Paranormal Activity or the scattershot Insidious. It’s a refreshingly uncomplicated look at a group of interesting characters besieged by the supernatural in a genuinely creepy environment. It’s strange that such an old-fashioned conceit feels like a change of pace these days.
It’s 1966 and Kristen, played by the always-luscious Amber Heard, has been institutionalized at the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital. Although we clearly see that Kristen has committed arson on an old farmhouse, neither she nor the audience has any idea why. In her dreams she suffers from images of torture and abuse, but once confined in “The Ward” she’s the sanest one there, interested only in her freedom. It’s a natural response, but the staff casts a blind eye to her reasonable questions and concerns and subject her to electro-shock therapy for no discernable reason. Her fellow inmates at the ward range from only slightly bitchy (The Crazies’ Danielle Panabaker) to dangerously unhinged (Taking Woodstock’s Mamie Gummer) to tragically regressed into a childlike state (newcomer Laura-Leigh), but they are united in their desires to escape the ward, and in a terrible secret that haunts them, literally, in the form of a supernatural specter.
John Carpenter has often been called “The Master of Horror,” and The Ward, though far from an original story, supports that thesis. Seemingly without effort he crafts a world we can believe in, with characters who occasionally lean towards cliché but overcome that obstacle thanks to a strong cast led by the charismatic Amber Heard. What’s more, Carpenter elicits genuine scares – though perhaps not the kind to keep you up at night – without resorting to cheap gimmicks. The situations the girls find themselves in are at turns believable and frightening, based on their situation, location and their thoroughly understandable actions. Although The Ward boasts some of the director’s finest “Gotcha!” scares to date its real power is in the understated hopelessness of Kristen’s situation, and the matter of fact portrayal of her plight.
All is not entirely well in Ward-ville, unfortunately, as The Ward lacks some of the more involving ideas – or even eerie lack thereof – in some of Carpenter’s best horror work, like Halloween, Christine or Prince of Darkness. The situation of the protagonists is so straightforward that The Ward rejects further analysis beyond the traditional ensemble act character studies, or a rather familiar look at institutionalization when it was no longer an antonym for outright torture (assuming that this is not the case today). These are fine elements on which to hang a story, but lacking further depth prevents The Ward from resonating on a deeper level, making it an exceptional B-Movie and, unfortunately, little more. The frustratingly predictable ending – something Carpenter’s been fairly immune to in the past – clinches the feeling that The Ward is at best a genre exercise, even if it is the best kind of genre exercise: mining well-trodden ground for its original storytelling value, even if it contributes little to the genre beyond that.
Though lacking substance, and probably the kind of stylization necessary to capture the mainstream’s attention these days, The Ward is a great throwback to the days when all a horror story needed was to be told in a scary way. Finely acted, attractively (albeit understatedly) shot and pleasingly straightforward, The Ward is unlikely to be rewarded for its virtues. I foresee plaintive fanboys calling the film a disappointment for not living up to “classic” John Carpenter. But Carpenter is, first and foremost, a genre director. He adapts to the conventions of the genre in which he works, and he’s done a great job here. It’s only the above-average material he’s working with that fails to live up to expectations. Get this man some better scripts and I’ll bet he still has some bona fide classics left inside of him.
CRAVE Online Rating: 8/10