John Carpenter returned after a lengthy hiatus last night with The Ward. A genre film that evokes a sense of a simpler time when horror movies relied more on psychological scares rather than CGI ones.
The story opens with a woman (played by the beautiful Amber Heard) setting fire to a house. She is subsequently arrested and put in a psychiatric ward with four other women. Feeling she doesn't belong there she attempts to break out only finding a conspiracy of missing patients that leads her to uncover something much more sinister that is at work in the ward.
While certainly far from being a masterpiece The Ward is a great looking film with a good cast. The music is stellar, rings true with 70's and 80's classic horrors; John Carpenter co-wrote it so you know you're in for some great sounds.
This one falls short of Raimi's return to form with Drag Me to Hell, instead it fells like a completely tolerable early 90's horror... it's just too bad John Carpenter hadn't made this one back then.
I give it a pass but, it'll probably get torn to shit when it hits wide release.
Last night I was incredibly excited for our MM film, John Carpenter's The Ward. Less so for the film, and more for the opportunity to be in the presence of and hear speak one of the directors I admire most, John Carpenter. The man is a living legend, and his films have helped shape me into the horror-fiend I am today. So you can imagine my dismay when it was announced during Colin Geddes' intro to the film that Carpenter could not be with us because he had been called for jury duty in L.A. God motherfucking damn. The rest of the cast was in attendance, and they all looked lovely in their short skirts with legs that went from the ground to the neck. And Carpenter provided a very funny video intro to the film, but it was all cold comfort for something I had been anticipating for so long. Kris even had on his Fright Rags They Live t-shirt and was in the front row, camera in hand, ready to throw his love at Carp like that overly-amourous prisoner in Silence of the Lambs, but alas...
Anyway, onto the film, which at this point seemed like an afterthought. Funny thing is, it wasn't all that bad. Actually, it was kinda sorta decent. The Ward stars Amber Heard as Kristen, a young girl who we first see running through the woods, then setting fire to a farmhouse. She is promptly arrested and tossed into the titular institution, wherein reside half a dozen similarly pretty young things. We soon learn that all is not right in this ward, and that there may or may not be malevolent forces at work as girls start disappearing. Is it the work of experimental psychiatrist Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris)? Perhaps a vendetta job on the part of surly Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney, in a role that gives Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched a run for her money)? Or is something more sinister, more supernatural, at work?
Carpenter mentioned in his intro that this was "an old school horror film from an old school director". He must have been referring to the '80s as old school, and not the '40s (Geddes mentioned in his Q&A after ther film that it hearkened back to the works of Val Lewton, but I didn't see that at all. At least it didn't remind me of any of the half-dozen Lewton films I've seen). In any case, Carpenter keeps things practical, and the visual effects provided by the team of Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger (genre fans might recognize those names) were super effective and creepy. The story, and the scares, had a very '80s/early '90s feel as well, and what we have here is essentially the same template that Carpenter applied to Halloween, or, as Geddes referred to it, "a reverse The Thing". Regardless, the film wasn't the disaster it could have been.
Carpenter hasn't made a feature film in nine years, and his last works - not counting his two enjoyable TV episodes for the Masters of Horror series - were Ghosts of Mars and Vampire$, not without their charm, mind you, but a far cry from the master's halcyon days. It's reassuring to see a director whose glory days are gone but can still deliver the goods, even as many of his contemporaries fall into laughable self-parody irrelevance (cough, darioargentogeorgeromero, cough).
The Ward isn't groundbreaking, isn't great, but it is a solid, well-crafted film, nicely shot and with a score that recalls Carpenter's own superlative work. Toss in some fun scares and creepy atmosphere, and you've got a solid little Friday night pizza and beer scarer. I saw parallels to recent films Shutter Island, Drag Me to Hell, and, as Kris mentioned afterward, Identity. I think it will ultimately be remembered as one of Carpenter's minor works, but that fact that it was not a complete failure is a success in and of itself. It may sound like I'm being a Carpenter apologist, but that's not really the case. While it is not yet safe to say that Carpenter is "back", it's reassuring to know that the old boy still has a few tricks up his sleeve. With The Ward, Carpenter cautiously re-enters the cinematic realm and the genre, not with a bang, but with a sly grin to knowing audiences, issuing a concise statement declaring, "I ain't dead yet..."
- the coelacanth