It’s been almost a decade since director John Carpenter has applied his talents to a cinematic feature, and the big screen has been poorer for his absence. The driving force behind such films as Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween and the classic of grisly horror that is The Thing, Carpenter has been oddly quiet since the abortive Ghosts Of Mars, the 2001 misfire starring Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube.
When it was announced that Carpenter was returning to feature directing with the supernatural thriller The Ward, I was both thrilled and anxious. Could the former master of horror cinema regain his creative muse in the new millennium?
Early signs are encouraging. In an eerie, well-shot opening scene that both looks and sounds like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, we’re treated to prowling shots of an underlit mental hospital, the flickering light from a thunderstorm playing off peeling paint and the scratched patina of laminated furniture.
We’re then treated to something that has become increasingly rare in modern cinema: a protracted, artfully designed opening credits sequence. This one, which juxtaposes woodcut prints and photographs with splintered glass, recalls the work of Saul Bass, and provides a welcome gateway to Carpenter’s film, establishing its sombre mood and its themes of madness and paranoia.
When the words ‘John Carpenter’s The Ward’ flash across the screen, in the same white out of black type the director has used since Halloween, the message appears to be: the Carpenter we once knew is back.
Amber Heard plays Kristen, a disturbed girl of indeterminate age who, having burned down a farmhouse, is despatched to the creepy environs of a sprawling, isolated psychiatric hospital. Under the watchful eye of Doctor Stringer (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) and his hard-faced team of orderlies (among them the magnificently named Nurse Lundt), Kristen and her fellow inmates are menaced by a shadowy, malevolent figure.
There are two things that become apparent within a few minutes of The Ward‘s opening. The first is that the occupants of The Ward are all unusually young, glamorous and make-up clad, from the flirtatious, catty Sarah (Danielle Panabaker) to the bespectacled, artistic Iris (Kick-Ass‘ Lyndsy Fonseca). The second is that everything about The Ward feels alarmingly familiar, even a little tentative. There are numerous moments – false scares, prowling shots, long shadows – that have been seen myriad times in numerous other slasher horror and suspense movies of the last 30 years.
In fairness, Carpenter established many of these clichés himself in his early work, and it feels at all times that the director wants to stay firmly within his comfort zone, freely referencing the jolts and POV camerawork of Halloween, the hospital setting of its sequel, and the murky atmosphere and sudden slayings of The Fog. One killing, which involves a bout of eye damage worthy of Lucio Fulci, is surprisingly gruesome.
Given that so much of The Ward has been seen before, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the film never scales the creative heights of Carpenter’s early canon. It is, nevertheless, well-made and, at times, incredibly tense. Carpenter still hasn’t lost his ability to generate suspense, and while he’s not afraid to tease the audience with cheap tricks, the figure that stalks the hospital’s long corridors is an imposing presence, and barely glimpsed until the film’s conclusion.
At the film’s centre is a great performance from Jared Harris, the doctor who holds the key to the film’s mystery, providing an enigmatic spin on the dapper character he plays in Mad Men. The rest of the largely female cast also acquit themselves well, with Amber Heard making the most of a fairly stock horror heroine role.
Sadly, the mystery at The Ward‘s core will be all too familiar to anyone who’s seen more than a handful of recent horror thrillers, and its denouement is so similar to at least three other movies that I dare not mention their names for fear of spoiling what occurs.
The Ward, therefore, marks a bittersweet return from erstwhile genius John Carpenter. There are hints everywhere of the director’s early talent, from the film’s economical, panther-like cinematography to its measured build up of tension, but its promise is sadly undercut by a story that never rises above genre cliché. Its escape attempts, revelations and murders all occur in a decidedly familiar pattern, and while The Ward isn’t without a few red herrings, its conclusion is simply too familiar to really satisfy.
Compared to his last film, Ghosts Of Mars, The Ward nevertheless marks a return to form for one of America’s great horror directors. It’s far from perfect, but it contains enough scares and artistry to recommend to anyone who shuddered through Carpenter’s earlier work, even if it’s sometimes difficult to escape the feeling that he deserves better than the material he’s directing.
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