The Ward, 2010.
Directed by John Carpenter.
Starring Amber Heard, Jared Harris, Danielle Panabaker, Mika Boorem and Lyndsy Fonseca.
After burning down a farmhouse, Kristen (Amber Heard) is institutionalised, but she is far from safe, as a ghost appears to be hunting down her ward-mates and brutally murdering them.
[WARNING, THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MORE SPOILERS THAN USUAL]
After a string of disappointments (his last decent film being the gleefully-schlocky Sam Neill starrer In The Mouth of Madness), horror genius John Carpenter went back to the drawing board. Or rather, to TV, to Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror series, where he proved he can still scare the crap out of us with his best work in ten years, particularly the superb Cigarette Burns episode. So it’s only right that he should return to the silver screen where he made his name with low-budget, nerve-racking thrillers and trail-blazing horror.
The Ward does feel a bit like an episode of Masters of Horror, but that’s no criticism, with Carpenter utilising his tiny budget with a small cast (Amber Heard is excellent as the bold but confused Kristen) and an isolated location which is as much a character as the actors themselves. The ward where the film is set is a looming, breathing entity, all dark, moody corridors at night and cold, off-kilter sparseness during the day. The sense of dread is looming, like some hulking, unknown mass long before the ghost even shows up.
Carpenter’s wise decision to set the film in the 1960s allows him to mine some of the savage and archaic medical treatments, such as electro-shock therapy for some quality scares. The genuine belief by Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) that this barbaric procedure is beneficial is horrific enough, and the portrayal of it in the film is brutally graceful, as the camera pans down to Kristen’s writhing feet as electricity shoots through her. The electro-shock murder of one of the girls by the ghost is even more harshly realised – as the voltage is whacked up to full the girl’s body convulses and smokes, her flesh sizzling and burning.
Another of the ghost’s murder set-pieces definitely not for the squeamish is the medical instrument torture scene, which ends in a spiked instrument being driven through the victims eyeball, the camera cutting away just after the gruesome full penetration of the spike. Thirty-five years experience in practical effects and the skills of special effects supremos Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger serve Carpenter well, the set-pieces being extremely effective in their gory glory. But they’d be nothing without the tension, which Carpenter delivers in buckets. It’d be unthinkable if the man who brought us the nerve-racking The Thing and Halloween couldn’t rack up the dread because simply put, he knows whats he’s doing. The winding, foreboding corridors, the creepy score and tight camerawork imbue the film with a sense of morbid anticipation that is completely tangible.
So it’s amazing right? Well, no, I’m afraid not. Masterful as the first and the second acts of The Ward are, it’s in the third act when the film simply falls on its face. The ghost’s corporeal presence begins to get silly (I can accept that she can pick things up, but Kristen being able to drive an axe into her body doesn’t seem very, well, ‘ghost-like’). As the girls get picked off, you find yourself largely unconcerned due to how underdeveloped their characters are. Also, the plot-development that the girls of the ward murdered the girl who became the ghost, their justification rather lightweight, seems distinctly unbelievable and over-the-top.
But all this could be forgivable, mere inadequacies were it not for the downright awful reveal that Kristen is schizophrenic. I really, really dislike the use of this horror cliché, so frequently the resort of lazy writers and genre hacks, surpassable in sheer unoriginality only by the ‘it was all a dream’ ending. Although I will admit I didn’t see it coming (I expected better from my beloved Carpenter), this twist was so tediously disappointing. Carpenter can do so much better, and he really doesn’t need to do the ‘mirror-shock’ cliché at the end either.
While it starts strong, The Ward eventually gets lost in it’s own genre pitfalls, while Carpenter seems to almost be parodying himself and the genre he helped revolutionise. It’s easy to blame the writers, but Carpenter wouldn’t have chose to make the film if he didn’t want to. Which begs the question, why didn’t he write his own feature, like in ‘the good old days’? Has the man who made horror what it is today ran out of ideas? Or is it back to TV for another ten years? Incidentally, that wasn’t meant to rhyme.