Friday, 10 February 2012

The Ward (2010)

What happened to John Carpenter? He was and still is due to his legacy one of the greatest directors the horror genre has ever had. If you look back at his body of work, it is impossible to ignore this highly skilled filmmaker’s importance to genre cinema in general.

Carpenter has made such wonderful films as ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ (1976), ‘Halloween’ (1978), The Fog (1980) and his last great movie was 1982’s ‘The Thing’. There is also of course a delightful array of treasured little gems throughout his filmography: ‘Dark Star’ (1974), ‘Escape from New York’ (1981), ‘Christine’ (1983), ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ (1986), ‘Prince of Darkness’ (1987), ‘They Live’ (1988) and ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ (1995). With that exception of his last good film there in ’95, come the 90s showed a creative stagnation in the director’s output. This ranged from such mediocre efforts as ‘Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), ‘Escape from L.A.’ (1996) and ‘Vampires’ (1998) to the just down right stinky with his ill-conceived remake of ‘Village of the Damned’ (1995) and the terrible rehash of ‘Precinct 13’ in space with ‘Ghost of Mars’ (2001).

Burnt out with his enthusiasm for filmmaking at an all-time low due to his bad experiences with that last production John Carpenter decided to leave Hollywood for good. With that, it looked as if my hopes of one of my heroes ever making at least one more decent movie again had vanished. That was until Mick Garris assembled some of the finest horror auteurs to contribute episodes to the horror anthology TV series ‘Masters of Horror’. Coaxed back into the director’s chair for the show’s first season Carpenter delivered some of his finest work in years in 2005 with ‘Cigarette Burns’ a disturbingly nightmarish  and surreal journey into the world of film buffs. He followed it up the next year with the hugely enjoyable ‘Pro-Life’. It seemed that John Carpenter’s time away had refreshed his skills and therefore with his passion for cinema seemingly restored and after a string of on and off projects the director has finally returned to the big screen with the much delayed ‘The Ward’. Unfortunately, it pains me to say that the news is far from good.

Fast becoming a scream queen genre veteran and one of the few bright spots in this mundane movie the very capable and strong Amber Heard plays Kristen who after being found by police wandering alone in the woods of Oregon in 1966 and is caught burning down a house she is admitted to the local metal institution. She has no memory of who she is. There placed in a group with four other troubled young women under the care of the suspicious Dr Stringer (a sleepy phoned in performance from Jared Harris) soon after arriving she starts seeing at night another young women wandering the corridors. With her ghastly-decomposed visage and killing off the group one by one and what with the sinister revelation of former patients going missing, it becomes apparent to Kristen that something supernaturally evil is going on. After failing to convince the staff, she decides to see to it herself.

From the synopsis you can already tell how hackneyed this is. Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s screenplay is desperate, clichéd ridden and unfocused. It is an uneven hybrid of J-horror plot, money shot torture death scenes and psychological thriller with a M. Night Shyamalan style twist ending. The movie cannot decide what sub-genre of horror it belongs to; we have a vengeful ghost story but the kills are slasher physical and it delves into psychological terror using all the conventions we would expect from an asylum set thriller - electro shock treatments, experimental drugs, the stock horrible head matron etc. There are no surprises here whatsoever. The characterization of the other girls is blander than bland as well. They are extremely annoying supporting characters that we could just not care less for coming straight from the stereotypical mental health cookie-cutting machine. Only Heard stands out with her acting abilities making the best of what she has to work with.

Only a filmmaker of Carpenter’s calibre could make something interesting out of this lazy writing but he does not. If you are expecting the creative skills of his very fine early work being on display here then it is kept to the bare minimum. The director employs little innovation instead opting to do it by the numbers - this is flat filmmaking. This does not feel like a Carpenter film for the most part lacking most of his trademark auteur stamps with an absence of the lovely visuals and sounds that define his work. It looks and feels mostly like a TV movie of the week with largely bad cinematography including the absence of Panavision for the first time ever with some very lousy lighting to boot. The only resemblance of John Carpenter’s glory days can be seen very early on in the film. While failing to capitalize upon the setting of the asylum lacking the claustrophobic atmosphere of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ and ‘Prince of Darkness’ with their similar settings in the opening of the movie we at least see Carpenter’s unique way of framing scenes with odd angles used for these interior shots. Although the musical score is not of the director/composer’s own work, Mark Killian does manage to replicate John Carpenter’s style with bombastic jolts and low bass beats. 

Carpenter does manage to pull off some mildly effective jumps scares while all along building some suspenseful tension but the murder set-pieces are employed with rhythmless execution. Although Howard Berger and Greg Nictotero do provide some descent gore effects and the special makeup of the ghost girl killer is suitably hideous. The Shyamalan-esque twist feels very forced revealed so clumsily with heavy handed exposition aided by a montage of flashbacks spelling it out for us as if we are a load of idiots for not getting it throughout the already very linear narrative. Rather than shocking you, it will leave you very annoyed. This is a very un-engaging affair.

An old school horror movie made by an old school director” so said John Carpenter on ‘The Ward’. Well I would not have a problem with that if it were made with the enthusiasm and passion that seemed to have returned to this “old school director” with his ‘Masters of Horror’ outings instead of knocking out some hack job between sessions of watching NBA in his onset trailer. Not only that but thanks to the shoddy script the film applies too much modern Asian ghost like elements, slasher and so called “torture porn” like scenes and fails hard by insulting the viewer’s intelligence with the psychological aspects to be an “old school horror movie”.

This is yet another disappointment from the much-loved director of such great films early on in his career. My hope is that this was just Carpenter’s way of getting his foot back into Hollywood’s door and that his next project will be the real deal. By this, I mean written by him, directed with the creative flair of his first fifteen years heyday and featuring one of his own unique soundtracks. It is just so tragically sad to see one of the all-time greats of genre cinema go to waste like this, as he deserves to do much better with his considerably huge talents as a writer, director and composer. ‘The Ward’ is just boring uninspired tripe that is best avoided.

* out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. Yes! Somebody else that was unimpressed by "The Ward." I've come across too many people who think this is a great horror movie. It's refreshing to see a review where someone calls this bad movie out for its faults.

  2. I'm very surprised at all the positive reviews and feedback on forums that 'The Ward' has got. It's a piece of shit!

  3. I think I was more dissapointed than you, because this was the first movie directed by him I saw.

    1. I can recommend all of Carpenter's films from the 70s and 80s but come the 90s that's where it starts to go downhill. 'In the Mouth of Madness' and his two 'Masters of Horror' episodes are notable exceptions.

  4. Vits, don't let the Ward burn you in regards to Carpenter. The man has a slew of hits and while it's a shame his output of late has been lacklustre those efforts in no way diminish the wealth of quality films made by a damn entertaining director.

    Great shout-out to Cigarette Burns- I consider it a sort of companion piece to In the Mouth of Madness.

  5. Good review of a bad movie. I couldn't agree with you more. It was depressing to watch such a by-the-numbers exercise by one of my favorite directors. I also felt that Cigarette Burns was a welcome return to form. I guess it set my level of expectations for this flick unreasonably high.

    1. My soul was crushed coming out of the theater.