John Carpenter has a very good following, an audience who sticks with him through thick and thin. They love his great films (Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing) and his good ones (Halloween, The Fog and Starman), and willingly tolerate the flawed (Christine and They Live) and the genuinely terrible (Prince of Darkness and Village of the Damned). Carpenter’s latest, and his first in a decade, The Ward will probably test his fans further than ever before.
The film begins with a murder in an asylum, and then quickly introduces our heroine, Kristen (Amber Heard) running through a field and burning a house down. She later remembers very little of this and is sent to the same asylum, and the same room, in which the earlier murder took place. It isn’t long before bad things start happening, mostly involving some zombie-type ex-patient who seems to be out for revenge.
Things get to a speedy start in The Ward, with the typical archetypes of the asylum film, the other patients, the cold nurses and the secretive psychiatrist, speedily introduced. The problem is that the film is speeding nowhere, with every scene seemingly building up tension and setting up story elements without any pay-offs. Incidental score continues while the scenes change creating an oddly elliptical feel, one that feels more like an accident than any attempt at eerie mood-building. Even the horror set-pieces feel rushed, with a shot establishing the nature of the threat, followed quickly by a reaction shot and then the often bloody conclusion without any attempts at creating suspense and dread. Conversation scenes are also rushed with the space established by the camera frequently undermined by the choppy editing. It is almost as if Carpenter was making the film with a very limited amount of film and could only shoot just enough so that the whole thing would at least cohere. Then, the inevitable twist, straight out of James Mangold’s numbskull thriller Identity, creaks its way into position and even coherence goes out the door.
On top of all that, Carpenter seems to have studied under the hipster code of filmmaking during his time off, filling his film with allusions to other films, ones that, it might be worth noting, came out when he himself was directing. Hence, the score is a repetitive variation of Goblin’s haunting theme for Argento’s Suspiria, surely the best thing about that film. As well as that, during the daytime asylum scenes, we are treated to the same classical music that is pumped into the asylum in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. This kind of thing is easier forgiven in a debut, in which the new director feels the need to pay tribute to their influences before moving on, but hardly from a 63 year old director with enough of a following to be still including his moniker before the titles of his films. On top of this, the deaths are of the Hostel and Saw variety, which acts to further emphasis as to how out of touch Carpenter is. He seems to be all too aware that these sequences put bums on seats but is too unwilling to go as far as those films do, making the whole thing appear timid and restrained, in preparation for a Too Extreme For Cinemas DVD release perhaps.
Quite why John Carpenter decided to make his initially welcome comeback with such a pedantic script will be anyone’s guess. Fans will probably wish he hadn’t bothered, while it is unlikely that the uninitiated will feel impelled to seek out this once-great director’s earlier work. With unmemorable characters, lazy and repetitive plotting and, its sad to say, bad direction, The Ward is a trying experience.