Review: John Carpenter's The Ward (Tiff)

John Carpenter's The Ward (Tiff)
3 10

PLOT: A young woman (Amber Heard) is institutionalized in a mental hospital haunted by the ghost of a former patient. Soon, her and her fellow inmates are being stalked and picked off one by one by this evil force, which the head psychiatrist (Jared Harris) seems intent on covering up.

REVIEW: I wish I could say THE WARD is a return to form for John Carpenter. I grew up on his films, and HALLOWEEN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, THE THING, and THEY LIVE are among my favourite flicks. Heck, I even have a soft spot for some of his outright flops, like MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, and ESCAPE FROM L.A. While he hasn't made a good film in AT LEAST twelve years (VAMPIRES in '98, although most would list IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS as the last vintage Carpenter flick), I was psyched to hear Carpenter would once again be stepping behind the camera. Still, I had reservations about the tired sounding storyline (pretty girls being picked off one-by-one) which has been done to death (heck, he all but invented the genre!).

Sadly, this IS NOT vintage Carpenter, and may in fact be a worse movie than GHOST OF MARS. I honestly can't figure out why Carpenter chose to make such a cheesy and uninspired film as his comeback. Maybe the problem is that Carpenter's always been at his best when directing his own scripts, but here he's saddled with a script that screams direct-to-video. Perhaps he was trying to make something accessible beyond his rabid fan base, with him using a hot young cast of popular actresses, including Danielle Panabaker, Lyndsy Fonseca, and future star Amber Heard.

Besides Heard, everyone fares pretty miserably, as they're given dialogue that seems like it belongs in a sixties Hershel Gordon Lewis film. The characters are horrible, with all the stereotypes being represented, including the bad girl, the sexy girl, the smart girl, the childlike one, etc. Of course, each of the girls is also exceptionally good looking, and at times this felt like a seventies “women in prison” movie with all the good stuff taken out.

They also set the film in 1966, which I imagine is just an excuse to dress up the pretty cast in sexy sixties clothing (Panabaker's Diana Rigg/AVENGERS ensemble is a little much for a mental hospital me thinks). Only Heard manages to make the most of her role, as she's so charismatic, she even almost succeeds in making schlock like this palatable- although even she can't save the moronic “twist” ending, that screams SHAMALAYAN! Jared Harris also manages to walk away with his dignity intact, although one can't help but feel Harris is wasted, when he could have easily been the lead in a grittier, cooler Carpenter film. This is totally a by-the-numbers horror flick, and there's nothing about it (other than the font used in the credits) that makes it seem like a Carpenter yarn. Heck, he didn't even compose the musical score!

Perhaps the most misguided thing about the film is that, for some ungodly reason, Carpenter seems to be aiming for a PG-13. I actually just finished writing a review for another horror flick, VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, that also seems to be aiming for a PG-13. In that case, it works beautifully. Here, you really need the exploitation elements, as what else is an exploitation film without the exploitation? Evidently not much, and THE WARD was an absolutely miserable film to sit through.

However, I still refuse to write off Carpenter. Sure, he strikes out with THE WARD, but I'm not convinced he's done yet as a director. I think it's just the horror genre that seems to escape him a little these days, as the current trends don't really allow for the type of flicks he made in the eighties. I'd like to see him make a return to hardcore action, like ESCAPE FROM NY, or THEY LIVE. With the right bad ass leading man (preferably Kurt Russell), I'm sure he could pull off a great, fun, action flick. THE WARD just feels like a waste of the man's time, and a waste of ours as well.



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