Sigh. This is a hard review for me. After spending years bent and praying and making ritual offerings to the movie gods, asking that John Carpenter pretty please make another feature film, it feels incredibly awkward – almost wrong – to say “no thanks” when my wish is finally granted. But such is my reaction to John Carpenter’s first theatrical film in a decade, The Ward. Sigh.
Carpenter has been away from the feature film game for a long time now. (2001’s Ghosts of Mars, for those not keeping track). His memory has certainly been kept alive. The franchise that made him a genre superstar – Halloween – not only had yet another late-in-the-game sequel, but got a complete reboot, which itself generated a sequel. But other than that, the closest we got to Carpenter actually taking part in a feature film was Brian Cox demanding that he be made up to look like Carpenter for his role in Trick ‘r Treat. So the glass-half-full way of looking at The Ward is that it is simply nice to have him back. And in that light, yes it is.
The film opens with Kristen (Amber Heard) setting fire to a house. We don’t know why she did it, and we soon gather that she doesn’t know why she did it either. This lapse in memory saves her from jail, and she finds herself in a sparsely populated mental ward overseen by Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris). Her ward-mates are four other young women, Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), Emily (Mamie Gummer) and Zoey (Laura Leigh). But Kristen begins to suspect that there may be fifth girl around, one that is haunting the joint.
The Ward isn’t a bad film. It is simply cursory and rather typical. Which is very surprising coming from Carpenter. There is no denying that the man dropped a few moist turds before his sabbatical in the 00’s. But say what you will about films like Vampires, Ghosts of Mars, Memoirs of the Invisible Man, or Village of the Damned — you wouldn’t call them cursory or typical. Carpenter’s greatest creative virtue was always the off-kilter tone of his films. He just didn’t seem to think like the rest of us. And thus his films just didn’t seem like other films. This meant that even his “bad” or “messy” films had something to offer and to work the brain, because they were just so goddamn unusual. I kind of hated In the Mouth of Madness when I first saw it in the 90’s, but damned if I’m not still talking about it in 2011. I cannot conceive why I’d be talking about The Ward in an equivalent number of years. It truly pains me to say it, but the film is something that I don’t think any prior Carpenter film has ever been — forgettable.
The film has the weight and tone of a Masters of Horror episode, and had it been one (Carpenter has done two episodes for the Showtime program already; one rather good) my review would likely be very different. To clarify, I’m not saying that Carpenter needed to do something grandiose for his triumphant return. I just wanted something that felt like a John Carpenter film. The Ward feels like it could have been made by anyone, and that’s what disappoints me more than anything. Carpenter is 63; he’s an “old guy” now, to use his own words. Albert Einstein often said that he had all his most important ideas in his twenties, and then spent the rest of his life figuring them out. While being a filmmaker is a bit different than being a theoretical physicist, creativity is universal and the vast majority of artists experience a similar cycle. Only the rarest of filmmakers can stay relevant into middle age (Spielberg, Hitchcock, Scorsese), and even fewer still can carry that spark into old age (Bunuel, Altman). Generally, even the most brilliant of the brilliant seem to reach a point where they run out of gas and are simply done (Wilder). Woody Allen has a smart tactic, which is to just keep churning films out so routinely that every now and then one will turn out decently, mathematically speaking. Such is life. Point being, I’m not delusional. I wasn’t expecting to get The Thing from Carpenter. Frankly, I was expecting something rather messy; hoping for maybe a Prince of Darkness. What’s so bizarre is that The Ward isn’t messy at all. It’s one of Carpenter’s crisper films. It is slick. I don’t know if Carpenter was concerned with trying to make what he felt was a modern horror film, or what, but I sensed very little of his presence here. It feels a bit mechanical.
This is Carpenter’s first film not to be shot in Panavision since Dark Star. It’s hard to resist getting conspiratorial and saying that this was the source of the problem. But that seems silly. Especially because the film isn’t completely devoid of Carpenter’s visual style — a lot of the shot compositions will feel familiar to diehard Carpenter fans. Where things come up short are in the story and character categories. Kristen can be seen as typical of a certain strain of Carpenter hero. Like Snake Plissken from the Escape films, or MacReady from The Thing, or George Nada from They Live, Kristen is inexplicably badass and a bit of an enigma. Purely on paper, it is extremely hard to pull off such a character, but Carpenter always had a golden touch with such things in the past (having Kurt Russell didn’t hurt either). But Kristen is hard to engage as a character. We’re dropped into the shit with her very abruptly, and then just kind of forced to go along with her from there. I never found a connection with her, and worse, never felt much of a desire to root for her beyond the base level of support I subconsciously grant any movie protagonist. That said, I like Amber Heard well enough (much of it residual interest from the unfairly buried film, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane). I think I could have dealt with Kristen as an artistic choice were the side characters not so distractingly subpar.
This does not include Jared Harris. Harris does his late father proud once more; the man can do no wrong and is one of cinema’s best working chameleons (pulling off idiot slimeball, Happiness, and stuffy prude, Mad Men, with equal believability). But the other girls on the ward are really awful. For one thing, they are too attractive. Yes, it’s a movie. Everyone is always attractive. But it is one thing to cast attractive girls and then do them up plainly, and it is another thing to cast attractive girls and do them up attractively, as the young ladies of The Ward are. Panabaker and Fonseca both look like 10s at all times, as if they’re ready to hit the mall. If The Ward were going for a Caged Heat exploitation vibe, that would be one thing, but the film isn’t. Worse than their appearance, these supporting girls are just as devoid of backgrounds as Kristen, which makes our hero’s blank slate feel less like an overt decision and more like a symptom of an undercooked script. Who are these other four girls? What got them sent to the ward? What are their individual mental problems? Emily and Zoey at least have personalities that come through in their actions (angry and infantile, respectively), but I couldn’t tell you what was up with the other two girls. If the film isn’t engaged in its characters, how are we supposed to be?
The story and how it unfolds will feel very typical to anyone who has seen a couple ghost films in their life. The look of the ghost (wet hair to boot) will also feel typical. Mileage may very here depending on how much you love the ghost subgenre, but the film doesn’t do anything novel with ghosts or have any particularly memorable set pieces. Things ramp up in the final moments of the film, which salvages The Ward to an extent; unlike the rest of the film, it is an ending worthy of Carpenter (good or bad). And again, if this had been a Masters of Horror episode, the ending possibly could have justified the whole thing, but for a feature-length film it was simply too little too late. The entire film needed the kind of ideas present in the climax. Now that I’ve made it this far in my review, I think what’s maybe most upsetting of all is how very little I have to say about the film. It just doesn’t inspire much dissection or discussion. It’s an okay, if derivative, J-horror-lite ghost story. I really hope the film does at least well enough that Carpenter can get funding to make some more films. I like to imagine this was just a warm up, something for him to shake the cobwebs off on and get back up to speed. In any case, it is great to have the old man back. Though I wish the occasion were livelier. The film does have a cool poster. I’ll give it that.
The Ward hits Video on Demand June 8, and will get a limited theatrical release July 8.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars