John Carpenter’s The Ward (2011)

The Thing, Halloween, The Fog, In the Mouth of MadnessJohn Carpenter is a horror legend – a genius – and a man we love and respect for creating memorable, terrifying and intricately designed masterpieces…he also made Ghosts of Mars.

Many have prayed for Carpenter’s return to feature film since 2001, having only knocked out a couple of half-decent horror shorts for TV series Masters of Horror, and after ten years we received a present in “selected cinemas” – John Carpenter’s The Ward.

The Ward does not need the prefix “John Carpenter’s” attached to it, however, because it simply does not feel like a Carpenter movie. Despite the occasional scare and a subtlety haunting score, The Ward is tired and predictable, displaying little innovation or flare. Carpenter needed this to be his reinvention, his rejuvenation, but instead it’s a safe piece of filmmaking that could’ve literally been created by anyone. Only the haunting nursery-rhyme style score and a strong central character reminds us it’s a Carpenter piece. It is not a terrible film, but it is severely lacking.

Having transported us two hundred years into the future in Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter drags us back to 1966 America, and straight into a haunted mental asylum. Pyromaniac Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed to North Bend Psychiatric Hospital after burning down an abandoned farmhouse, and she is thrown into a locked ward with four other girls. Something, however, is horribly amiss and Kristen quickly realizes something is stalking the corridors of the ward… something not quite human.

So far so embarrassingly clichéd. Sadly Carpenter fumbles out clichés like he hasn’t watched a horror film since he wrapped In the Mouth of Madness in 1994. By setting it in a 60′s mental asylum it ensured certain cliché boxes had to be ticked with a fat permanent marker; from electro-convulsive therapy to experimental pills, from a sadistic-looking matron to a terrible lighting system which barely lights anything. It even has a tacked-on ending that feels trite and incredibly lazy. It’s rudimentary stuff.

The script from Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen is not terrible, it just simply happens, with little innovation or sharp characterization. Go-to Hollywood horror chick Amber Heard plays Kristen with gusto and charm, and gives us a traditional Carpenter heroine to root for, whilst the other girls do a decent job of holding the believability together – Mamie Gummer especially shines as aggressive Emily. There are also good turns from Jared Harris as the suspicious Dr. Stringer and Mika Boorem as the rarely-seen Alice, both adding a little realism to an otherwise slightly cartoonish cast.

There are some excellent things about The Ward too. Despite being mostly riddled with horror clichés, there are genuine scares throughout and Mark Kilian and John Carpenter’s score is genuinely disconcerting. The final twenty minutes truly reinvigorates the film and makes you realize you’re watching the work of someone with invention and talent. It feels, however, almost too late and happily vomits up a startlingly obvious twist which begs for you to ignore hindsight… otherwise you’ll realize precisely how idiotic it all is.

After films such as Shutter Island and Identity played with place, character and time Carpenter’s latest is simply not innovative enough to be noticed by a wider audience. Having caught The Ward at the Empire Leicester Square it was saddening to see approximately fourteen other people coming to support it… in a 1330 seat auditorium. Sad times.

The Ward is an enjoyable film and the above review might seem overly negative, but it’s an attempt to be constructive on the work of a filmmaker I personally idolize. The Thing is in my top two favourite horror films of all time, along with An American Werewolf in London, and much like Landis’ return last year with Burke and Hare I’ve been crossing my fingers for greatness. With fingers a bloodless blue, I entered the cinema for both Burke and Hare and The Ward with an open mind and a lot of hope. This hope was neither destroyed nor completely won, but a step towards something better. With Carpenter’s Darkchylde in production it’s good to see that The Ward has not damaged his love for filmmaking completely. Due in 2013, I guess my fingers will have fallen off my then…

John Carpenter’s The Ward is a forgettable but competent horror film. It is safe and relatively tame, kicking out cliché after cliché with little shame. There are some good performances, a superb score and the occasional moment of genuine terror, but it’s nothing special. John Carpenter is back – not with a bang but with more of a light tapping on a rusty cell door, followed by some very creepy music…

Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

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