John Carpenter’s The Ward
Dir. John Carpenter
After she sets fire to a house, troubled Kristen is incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. It isn’t long before she becomes acquainted with the other patients and realises that all is not as it seems in the hospital. Odd occurrences are afoot and gradually the number of inmates begins to dwindle. Are the stern doctors and their experimental treatments to blame? Or is something more supernatural afoot? When she fails to convince the staff that someone, or something, stalks the corridors at night, Kristen decides to take matters into her own hands… Mild chills and a slew of shock/jump moments ensue.
John Carpenter has created some of the most seminal, defining films in the history of genre cinema. His early filmography reads like a ‘greatest hits’ of cult cinema: Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, Escape from New York, Dark Star, The Fog, They Live, In The Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China. While later films such as Escape from LA, Vampires, Ghosts of Mars and Body Bags were not as well received, they've gone on to amass dedicated cult followings.
While the majority of the film takes place within the confines of the eponymous ward, Carpenter fails to create the same feeling of claustrophobia inherent in earlier offerings such as Assault on Precinct 13, Dark Star, The Thing or Prince of Darkness. That said, the hospital is a damn creepy place and the director’s camera stalks the lonely halls with calculated menace. While Carpenter builds suspense slowly, assuredly, everything still exhibits a distinct ‘seen it all before’ quality. A number of recurring shots of the main corridor of the ward begin to grate a little, while a few gratuitous, though admittedly well orchestrated shocks mark the film as more ‘fun ride’ than a serious attempt to scare or unsettle the audience. The death scenes are well oiled but Carpenter relies too heavily on J-Horror stylisation instead of creating anything original. The make-up and SFX courtesy of Greg Nicotero et al are effective enough, and Carpenter wisely sticks to the ‘glimpse here, corner of the screen there’ approach when depicting ghostly goings on. CGI is wisely kept to a minimum and the short sharp bursts of violence punctuate proceedings with old-school gusto.
The characters are all cookie-cutter misfit types who owe a huge dept to Girl, Interrupted. There's the kittenishly seductive Sarah (Danielle Panabaker, Friday the 13th remake), gay artist Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), self-harming instigator Emily (Mamie Gummer) and timid and mousy Zoey (Laura-Leigh). The wardens and nurses are as harsh and unsympathetic as they come, though as Dr Stringer (Jared Harris) at least pretends to care for his patients. Some of the dialogue - particularly that spoken by Zoey - registers highly on the unintentionally funny radar, though it is testament to the skills of the actresses involved that they portray their roles with integrity and conviction. It is only really due to the foreseeable ‘twist’ that the stock characterisation can be accepted. I won’t say any more about this as even the less than attentive audience member should see what’s coming – though to the film’s credit, it is no less enjoyable a ride to the climactic ‘reveal.’ The by now obligatory ‘it’s-not-really-all-over-shock-ending-before-the-credits’ that many horror flicks boast, can go fuck itself though. That said, I have to admit it made me jump clean out of my skin.
I went to an early evening screening of John Carpenter’s The Ward on this, its opening night. I opted to see this film instead of Black Swan, another film about sinister psychological shenanigans, albeit a more loudly critically-lauded one. Hey, I’m that big a John Carpenter fan. Aronofsky’s probably-masterpiece can wait. Alas, there were about seven or eight other people in the cinema – the majority were teenaged boys who voiced their appreciation of the film, or rather of Amber Heard, quite a lot. They were also all too aware of the conventions Carpenter sticks rigidly to. They probably weren’t even born when Carpenter was trail blazing those very same conventions. It was a little sad to see the film in such lukewarm circumstances. But hey, it opened here without any fanfare at all, so maybe if one doesn’t allow expectations to get too high, one won’t be too disappointed. It is great to see Carpenter's work back on the big screen - his last film (Ghosts of Mars) was released back in 2001.
As mentioned, this is not Carpenter on top form, but he can obviously still oil the cogs of suspense and turn out a competent spook-fest. In other news: John Carpenter is baaaaaaack! Let's hope his next offering is soon, and perhaps more in keeping with what we'd expect from him.