Assault On Precinct 13. Halloween. The Fog. Escape From New York. The Thing. Christine. Starman. Big Trouble In Little China. Prince Of Darkness. They Live. In the Mouth Of Madness. That’s an incomplete list of films directed by John Carpenter from 1976 to 1994, and almost every one is a fantastic piece of cinema. Most directors (genre or otherwise) would be happy to see one or two great movies on their resume, but Carpenter can already claim several.
And then, sadly, he died in 1995 and was secretly replaced by a hack doppelganger who’s continued to make mediocre (at best) movies in his name.
Welcome to John Carpenter’s The Ward, where you can check in, but… I wouldn’t advise it.
Kristen (Amber Heard) is running. From where, to where, and why, no one knows. At least not until she arrives at an old farmhouse where her eyes take on a steely and determined glaze, and she proceeds to burn the place down. She’s arrested and thrown into a psychiatric hospital where she meets a handful of troubled, fearful, and personality-less girls along with a doctor (Jared Harris) who claims to want to help her. Things start going bump in the night and soon folks are being murdered in gruesome ways by a grisly phantom. Can Kristen solve the mystery before she becomes the next victim? Can she escape the haunted halls of the hospital? Will The Ward end with the most obvious twist a horror thriller set in an asylum possibly could?
The premise here is about as straightforward as a horror film can get, and that’s not a bad thing especially when the movie runs under ninety minutes. Sometimes the simplest setups can lead to the most effective thrillers as there’s no excess fat to get in the way of the narrative and the kills. But while the right ingredients are here including an attractive and amiable lead, a mysterious and creepy killer, a healthy pool of victims, and an ominous setting, it never quite gels the way it should.
The problems start soon after Kristen’s arrival at the asylum as we’re introduced to the film’s sparse and limited scope. The five girls are the only patients we see, and the entire staff seems to consist of the doctor, a nurse, and one guard. The other girls add little in regard to character or charm, and a couple of them (Emily and Zoe) actually annoy more than anything else. The inevitable kills offer a modicum of fun thanks to some good practical effects work, but the scares are usually accompanied by audio cues that deflate the tension.
Carpenter still frames and composes his shots better than many directors, but the action within them feels rote and predictable. Kristen sees things, no one believes her, someone dies. Rinse and repeat. The mystery is never that involving as the outcome seems fairly clear from early on, so instead we’re left with the kills as our sole source of entertainment. Well, that and a nice, long shower scene with all the girls washing away the crazy. Carpenter may be the only horror director who would film a scene like this focused entirely on the girls’ backs. Shower scenes in horror films are meant to have T&A, but this one features neither.
A decade after his last feature and seventeen years since his last quality movie, Carpenter’s return is a few steps up from Ghosts Of Mars but still below the threshold of recommendation. The ghost girl looks effectively creepy, and the effects in general are solid, but there really aren’t any successful scares to along with them. Carpenter already has one brilliant ghost story to his name… so skip this and go love the hell out of The Fog again instead.
The Ward is currently available on VOD.
The Upside: Amber Heard; a couple cool effects scenes including a needle in the eye; looks better than a cheap movie probably should; still better than Ghosts Of Mars
The Downside: Predictable and wholly unsurprising; no Carpenter score; script is bland and obvious; much of the acting is flat or actively poor; ghost is nonsensically presented; a two-minute shower scene with no boobies!
On the Side: This is Carpenter’s first film since 1974’s Dark Star not to be shot in Panavision. He says the change was due to budgetary constraints.