John Carpenter’s The Ward has attracted plenty of buzz recently, as it marks the horror master’s first feature film in ten years. He’s made a return to horror with The Ward, directing Amber Heard in a haunted mental hospital thriller that gets a limited theatrical release by ARC Entertainment on July 8th.
There is some of the horror maestro’s signature touch in The Ward, and some good old-school thrills and chills. But the story simply sinks under the massive amount of clichés. Not to mention the twist at the ending isn’t very inventive, and several similar films have come out in the last few years so The Ward feels like a wan shadow of some better film renditions.
The story is set in a mental hospital in the 1960s. That setup alone is rife with great horror moments. Mental hospitals were full of strange therapies and experimental procedures back then, not to mention old-fashioned methods not yet outlawed or regulated like electric-shock therapy, hydro therapy and lobotomies (done the traditional way, with a long sharp instrument stabbed through the eye).
The film starts out with a young woman (Heard) being arrested after she has set a house on fire. She is taken to a mental hospital, and beyond her name Kristen, she can’t remember anything. The hospital ward she is stuck in contains a group of enigmatic young women, all under the care of gentle Dr. Stringer, brusque Nurse Lundt, and brutal orderly Roy.
It soon becomes evident that there is some evil entity haunting the eerie halls of the mental hospital. Kristen’s fellow inmates begin disappearing, and whispered talk of a former patient named Alice has everyone scared. Kristen realizes she is running out of time to discover who or what is stalking the ward, and figure out how to stop it.
The Ward develops some good atmosphere, but lacks the tension and brilliance of some of Carpenter’s past directorial projects like The Thing or Halloween. Even the “jump” scares and gore of classic slasher Halloween are at a sad minimum. Carpenter does work with what he has, building some great slow tension with shots of empty, shadowy mental hospital corridors and plenty of flickering lights on dark and stormy nights.
Beyond the slow building tension, which begins to drag in the second act, the horror effects feel somewhat underdone. The tension begins to wane into boredom and it felt like Carpenter was pulling his punches when it came to gore and violence and not-so-gruesome murders.
But one of the greatest flaws, and this isn’t entirely Carpenter’s fault (except perhaps for taking on this film project), is the pedantic and clichéd story and script. Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, a team that have only low budget horror Long Distance to their name, this story brings us a worn-out tale of mental hospitals, personality disorders, and stalking menaces.
From the dialogue to the pacing, The Ward is nothing we haven’t seen before. Some lines had me shaking my head, like “bad things happen in the dark.” Then there was all the requisite ‘60s-era mental institution scenes like the electro-shock moment, the group therapy sessions, the collection of stereotypical “inmates”, and the multiple scenes of room escape, midnight sneaking, and nurse/orderly abuse. Plus recent psychiatric-themed horror/thrillers like Identity and Shutter Island have already covered this story competently enough.
I give Carpenter credit for doing a lot with a fairly limited budget. He gives this horror film a nice, sleek feel despite the financial obstacles by utilizing old-school effects and scares. I’m always glad to see a filmmaker go old-school with effects, especially in this type of “haunting” horror film. The ghost/monster is used subtly, just glimpses here and there as the film unfolds. When the full reveal arrives, the practical effects stand up to the moment and maintain their chill factor, which is actually a rarity. But the overall moments with the ghost/monster do feel anticlimactic, and are over too soon.
The music is also an up point, as an eerie and high-note score adds some great background to the quiet creeping scenes. The opening song, a wailing and melancholy tune, plays brilliantly beneath a vignette of still photos and newspaper clippings about disappearances and institution-related news. The opening credits and that music alone do a good deal to set mood and develop atmosphere.
Heard (Drive Angry 3D) carries the film and delivers some believable paranoia. She plays Kristen as an intelligent young woman who may be in a situation she doesn’t understand, but won’t let that deter her. She’s defiant and questioning, without being unlikable. Heard’s pretty fellow inmates were played competently by Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker and Lyndsy Fonseca.
It should be noted that this wasn’t a terrible horror movie, and the ending was satisfying enough. There were also some creepy old-school effects and good atmosphere. For fans of his that wish to get the taste of Ghosts of Mars out of their mouths, The Ward will offer a decent enough horror pic to make them forget Carpenter’s last space-themed film flop.