"Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.”

First review of John Carpenter’s The Ward

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I am really looking forward to John Carpenter’s The Ward. His first movie since 2001 Ghosts of Mars. It has debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and Catfish Jackson sent this review to AICN. There are spoilers ahead so be warned. Sounds as if individual scenes work very well, but doesn’t tie together as a workable whole so much. Only the first review so I think it will be one of Carpenter’s slightly better than average movies. Jackson sums it up as “Better than Vampires, not as good as In The Mouth of Madness. Somewhat comparable to Prince of Darkness”

Has anyone else seen it?

The premise of the film is simple: it’s the 1960s, a woman named Kristen burns down a farmhouse for no apparent reason and gets locked away in a mental asylum. While in the asylum she gets haunted by an evil ghost, and, of course, when she tells this to the doctors, nurses and orderlies they don’t believe her. Kristen sets about trying to uncover the mystery behind this evil ghost who keeps scaring the shit out her and killing other girls in the ward, and eventually the mystery is revealed. Very straightforward stuff.

The film that I kept thinking of while watching The Ward is Drag Me to Hell. Like DMTH, The Ward feels like a very deliberate, self-aware attempt by an ‘80s horror maestro to recapture the energy and vibe of his earlier work. I don’t think The Ward is as successful in accomplishing this as DMTH was, but that’s not to say that The Ward is bad – it’s just that the whole doesn’t equal the sum of it’s parts.

Individual scenes in the movie are very, very good. Carpenter films the asylum very effectively with a lot of low-angle tracking shots that reminded me of The Shining. Great music and lighting, a classic haunted house vibe throughout the film (as Carpenter said during his video greeting, “this is an old school horror film from an old school director”…that line got a big pop from the crowd). It’s not really a gory film, but there are two gore moments (of the “horrifying old school mental hospital treatments” variety) that are fucking phenomenal… they don’t add a whole lot to the story, especially in light of the ending (which I’ll get to in a moment), but the crowd really ate them up. Lots and lots of jump scares in this, which normally I don’t really like, but they worked in the film because Carpenter earns them. He inserts the characters into a classic creepy situation, like crawling through a dark, cobwebbed air duct, and you know that the jump is coming but he just milks the shit out of the tension and still manages to fake you out with the precise timing of the jump. Throughout the film, you know you’re in the hands of a pro. As well, the throwback design of the film really makes it feel like a homecoming in the same way that DMTH did. The design of the evil ghost in particular is wonderfully low-tech – personally, I found it reminiscent of the alien design in They Live, with a touch of j-horror on the side.

So, individual scare scenes are very scary and well done. The problem is that they don’t seem to add up to much. The film feels like a collection of horror set pieces strung together by…well, very little. Amber Heard plays the lead and she’s easy on the eyes but instantly forgettable in the role. She gets haunted, tries to escape, gets caught, gets put back in her cell, gets haunted again. When she’s not being haunted, or trying to escape, or being put back in her cell, she’s trying to solve the mystery of the evil ghost, but unfortunately the mystery just isn’t all that compelling. She’s assisted in her mystery-solving by four one-note female characters who also reside in the ward (it’s the bitchy one! the innocent one! the one who’s not as crazy as she seems!). Did these characters even have names? Probably, but I can’t remember them. Harris gives the lone memorable performance as a doctor who actually seems to want to help his patients, which you don’t typically see in haunted asylum movies. That was a nice touch.

Now, shallow characters aren’t necessarily a dealbreaker for a film like The Ward. As long as it’s fun and scary who cares, right? A much bigger problem than the characters or the repetitive action is the ending. While I won’t get into the specifics (SPOILER AHEAD) if you’ve seen Identity, Shutter Island or Haute Tension, you’ll see this one coming a mile away. The crowd was full of fanboys and girls who were ready to forgive the film its flaws and just love it unconditionally, but when the BIG TWIST hit you could just tell that people were trying to stifle the snark that they would surely be unleashing at the film had it been made by a lesser talent than Carpenter. It’s not just that we’ve seen this sort of ending before – it’s that it undermines so much of the action that has come before it. Earlier scenes that were full of tension and dread turn out to not have mattered much. It’s really a shame too, because the audience was totally with the film about 80% of the way, but I think most people walked out of there feeling a bit deflated by the final 15 minutes.

After the screening I was standing around with some people having a cigarette and talking about the film, when a very official-looking dude came over and asked us what we thought. In particular, he asked “does this rank among the best of John Carpenter?” To which I responded that when you’re talking about the best of John Carpenter you’re talking about Halloween – that’s an awfully high bar. Ultimately I think that this is a perfectly acceptable entry into the “minor Carpenter works” filmography. Better than Vampires, not as good as In The Mouth of Madness. Somewhat comparable to Prince of Darkness in that the action is very self-contained and it has the supernatural element, but not as much spooky iconic imagery as in that one (that shadowy figure in the doorway just scares the hell out of me). I’ll still give The Ward 3 stars out of 5 because I was frequently spooked out during the film, and to me that’s ultimately the point of seeing horror films, but it’s a regretful 3 stars because it’s a good film that might have been great, had it not suffered under the weight of a clunker of an ending. There’s a real exuberance to the scare scenes and you get the impression that Carpenter is happy to be plying the tools of his trade once again, but the material he’s working with is average at best. Definitely worth seeing for Carpenter fans and anyone who likes ghost stories, but probably won’t be regarded as a significant horror work in the long run.