Saturday, 3 September 2011
John Carpenter's The Ward
Starring: Amber Heard, Jared Harris, Mammie Gummer, Daniella Panabaker
By Alan Bacchus
Well, it's fun to have John Carpenter back after so many years dormant and more than a decade of forgettable films, even if this latest effort is not the reverie we all hoped for. At least it’s a pure horror film. There are no vampires or ghosts on Mars. But there is a contained location, specifically a psych ward in the '60s, and the ghost of a missing or dead girl tormenting a group of female patients.
We're treated to a classic Carpenter opening including a number of establishing shots of the ward strung together. Before that we see Carpenter’s heroine, a gorgeous and athletic Kristen (Heard), lighting her house on fire, an act that sends her to the looney bin. It’s 1966 and the ward is something we’ve seen in numerous films before - cold, dehumanizing decor, ornery doctors and nurses who seem to care little about the patient’s well being, and of course, experimental treatments like electro-shock therapy and labotomization. Kristen hangs out with other gorgeous young gals, inmates we presume are crazy too.
It doesn’t take long for Kristen to figure out there’s something not right about the ward, specifically an ominous dark-clad figure making creepy appearances around the building. Based on the glum reaction of Dr. Stringer (Harris), this seems to be a part of why Kristen is here. A few of the gals try to escape but are caught and killed by the demon ghost before Kristen has her one-on-one confrontation, and, as we can expect with these period mental patient films, all is not as it seems.
Carpenter manages to engineer a few scary sequences with creative ways to make us jump. His demon woman is a wholly Carpenter creation, a grotesque humanoid in a dress resembling one of the devil worshippers in Prince of Darkness.
But what’s sorely missing is the rich texture Carpenter used to have between his scary moments. Think of the build up in They Live before Roddy Piper first put those sunglasses on, or the monotonous music tones of Ennio Morricone in The Thing, or the religious back story in Prince of Darkness, or John Houseman’s opening campfire story in The Fog. There are no feelings like these in The Ward.
Carpenter’s later pictures have all been plagued with bad casting. Here Amber Heard is simply not believable as a tortured girl from the '60s, too generically beautiful to be psychotic. The stilted dialogue of all the girls feels more like a high school clique than four crazies in a psych ward. Thus, when Carpenter’s not trying to scare us, it’s all flat and devoid of atmosphere.
Sadly, Carpenter has lost his touch, but not without a superb body of work behind him. The Ward is like those last few films from Alfred Hitchcock, admirable but forgettable.
The Ward is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.