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STUDIO: Arc Entertainment
RATED: Rated R
RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes
- Theatrical Trailer
- Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Jared Harris
Written by Michael & Shawn Rasmussen. Directed by John Carpenter. Acted by Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mika Boorem and Jared Harris.
A scarred and bruised young woman finds herself setting fire to a farmhouse as police show up and arrest her. She has no memory of anything before the fire. Angry and mistrustful of everyone, she ends up in the all female ward in the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, led by the seemingly benevolent Dr. Stringer (Harris). As she settles in and meets the other girls from the ward, she’ll have to slowly unravel the mystery of the disappearances and deaths that have been plaguing the ward in the weeks before her arrival. Will she be able to fight the monster in the loony bin, or be devoured by her own past? I like making The Nutshell sound like a TV Guide synopsis.The Lowdown
Spoilers spoilers, everywhere…………………………………………………………
The Ward isn’t a bad movie. It’s not a great movie, either. I wouldn’t say it’s a return to form for John Carpenter because it never really feels like a John Carpenter movie to begin with. It feels like something closer to the current crop of horror directors that do a workmanlike job but don’t really add any heart or flavor to the mix and primarily get all their scares through fake outs and loud noises. Gone are the synthesized stylings of Carpenter’s musical palate and gone is the slow burn towards unimaginable horror he used to be so well known for. One thing this movie comes complete with, however, is a big old twist at the end in the vain of Identity, Shutter Island and The Sixth Sense. One that is supposed to make you want to go back to the beginning with your knowledge of the twist to see if the film carries the twist logically and to make sure the movie doesn’t cheat. I haven’t done that yet (and I’m not sure that I’m going to) because the twist is at once so telegraphed and yet so out of left field that, if it’s delved into too deeply, it might ruin any goodwill the film engenders anyway. To do this review justice, I have to talk about the twist and what it means to the narrative, so skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Amber Heard plays Kristen, a troubled young girl who’s thrown into North Bend Psychiatric Hospital when the police arrest her burning down an old farmhouse. Everything before the fire is a blank to her, which leaves her character a cipher to us. We keep getting flashes throughout the film of a little girl (not Amber Heard) tied up in what appears to be the interior of the farmhouse, looking like she’s getting tortured by some fat, creepy farmer. It makes sense to think that maybe Kristen was the one getting tortured since she’s the one having flashes, but the girl is much younger and doesn’t really look like a young Amber Heard, so it really could be anybody. And if Heard was tortured there as a child, why would she wait so long to burn the place down? We’ll get back to this.
Because of Kristen’s amnesia, her interactions with the other patients in the ward aren’t extremely interesting because Kristen’s only real personality traits are defensiveness, confusion and being reactionary. Right before she showed up, one of the girls in the ward disappeared (which we see in the opening, as a woman is attacked by some invisible force) and the remainder of the patients are scared. There’s Iris (the bookish one, excellently played by the lovely Lyndsy Fonseca), Sarah (the slutty one, underplayed by Danielle Panabaker), Emily (the crazy one, overplayed by Mamie Gummer) and Zoey (the child-like one, just plain old played by Laura-Leigh). Long story short, you find out that before all the horrible shit started going down, there was one more girl in the ward they never mentioned. Her name was Alice (Mika Boorem) and according to the girls she was mean and nasty and tortured them, so all the girls (including the one that got killed in the opening) teamed up one night and suffocated her. Naturally, it’s her ghost that’s haunting the ward and killing off the girls one at a time.
After three separate escape attempts (yes, it gets repetitive and almost comical) and multiple ghost attacks and several interviews with (The Wonderful) Dr. Jared Harris, Kristen finds a folder on the Doctor’s desk about Alice. Alice had multiple personalities before she went away: personalities named Iris, Emily, Sarah, Zoey and… Kristen. Dunh, dunh, dunnnnnnh! Kristen is just an alternate personality in the head of a poor girl named Alice, who was raped and tortured in a farmhouse for months before anyone found her. She created the personalities in order to empty Alice out so she could just shut down her own mind and let the other people deal with all the drama. It’s not a bad twist, although it’s a little sloppy and kind of makes the entire movie proceeding it irrelevant.
After the twist happens you then have to go back and question everything that came before it, in a similar way to how you had to in High Tension. The first question I had after watching High Tension was (spoilers) how could the main hero chick and the tubby serial killer be the same person when the chick got in a car chase with him? The killer had her best friend in the car with him and she was following, so when she wrecked how could the killer keep going with her friend? If she was the same person she could either wreck the one car and walk or drive the car with the friend in the trunk to wherever the hell they end up in the finale. One character can’t be in 2 places at once so that ruined what was, up to that point, a horror classic. I know we’re supposed to just say “oooh, I didn’t see that coming” and in some respects that’s true for The Ward. I knew a twist was coming because you could feel it in the air, but I didn’t think the entire cast aside from the staff of the hospital were going to be figments of a character we never got to know’s imagination. Since we never got to see Alice in the movie (aside from a quick flashback) until the end, when she’s all back to normal and the personalities are dead, we don’t care about her. We spent the whole movie with Amber Heard as our heroine, so where the fuck is she? Also, did Alice burn down a farmhouse? When? Before she went in the mental hospital, or did she escape and do it? Why are there so many slow moving dolly shots down empty hallways? Whose shoes are these?
A twist is supposed to make you go “Ahhhhhhh” and marvel at the cleverness of the script like The Usual Suspects or Memento did. You’re not supposed to blow a raspberry and make an air jerk with your hand like I did at the end of High Tension and Burton’s Planet of the Apes. The twist here gave me a combination of both feelings. I liked that the movie had the balls to make the lead a figment of another character’s imagination, but I’ve seen the twist done before and better and the novelty had worn off a bit for me. The fact that Heard’s character is such a cipher is interesting because (since she didn’t exist before the fire) she has no real motivation other than constant action, but that doesn’t help make her more interesting while you’re watching the movie. Yeah, it’s neat in retrospect to think “oh, it’s cool that character was underdeveloped because she was supposed to be”, but you have to watch a whole movie with an underdeveloped lead to get there.
Carpenter doesn’t need these twists or any twists at all. He is a master storyteller and will always get the benefit of the doubt from me. I think Ghosts of Mars and Christine (and maybe one or two more) are terrible, but the man who made Prince of Darkness, They Live and The Thing gets a lifetime pass from me and anyone who wants to jump on a hater bandwagon can let me off at the corner. Hell, I even thought his Masters of Horror episode, Cigarette Burns, was the highpoint of the entire series (although, Incidents On and Off a Mountain Road comes in a close second). If The Ward had felt more like a John Carpenter movie, then I probably wouldn’t have even brought the twist up at all and just told you to go give the man your money. As it stands, I still think you should check it out, but with lowered expectations and a focus on the fact that at least we have another movie from him to watch.
I find myself sometimes being an apologist for things sometimes not based on their merits, but on the artist responsible for it. For Example, Southland Tales makes me angry as hell with it’s refusal to take five seconds to clarify itself but, since I think Richard Kelly has a masterpiece in him that will blow us all away one day, I still tell people to watch it to see what a glorious failure looks like. The Ward isn’t as bad as all that, but it’s pretty average until it’s twist and then it’s average and dumb. I enjoyed watching it and was never bored (mostly because Amber Heard is painfully attractive), but I’m not going to remember anything about it in a month. It never made me feel like Carpenter was dead inside and going through the motions, but he doesn’t seem fully engaged either (like he did for Cigarette Burns). But if you’re a Carpenter completest like myself then you need to see it (or more likely already have) because the man needs to know he still has fans out there that want something truly original from him. Just one more genre classic to remind the world that not all truly great genre directors fade into the dollar bins. We owe him that much.
It looks and sounds wonderful. With the amount of jump scares in the movie, the surround sound will probably make you knock your Junior Mints onto the floor once or twice. Special features-wise, there’s only a trailer for the film and a commentary track with John Carpenter and Jared Harris. I think I’ll go play it now.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars