PICKIN’ THE CARCASS: THE WARD (2010)
Review by Michael Arruda
It’s been a while since John Carpenter directed a feature movie— not since GHOSTS OF MARS in 2001. So when I saw he had directed THE WARD (2010), and that it was now available on streaming video, I jumped at the chance to see it. (It’s also available on DVD and Blu-Ray.)
John Carpenter, of course, is the legendary director who made his mark directing the classic HALLOWEEN (1978), and who went on to direct such other notable classics as ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982). As you can see by the years these movies were made, it’s been a while since Carpenter made a memorable movie. He’s certainly made movies over the years that I’ve liked—IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995), for example—but it’s not like he’s made a notable horror movie every couple of years. He has not.
But fond memories of his classic films remain, and as such, whenever I see his name associated with a movie, I want to see it, which brings me back to my original point, of how I chose to watch THE WARD. It certainly wasn’t because of its plot description.
In THE WARD, it’s 1966 in North Bend, Oregon, and Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed to a mental institution for burning down a barn, a crime she has no memory of committing. She is placed in the care of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), who is not above using shock therapy on his patients, when his treatments on them don’t go as well as he expected.
Inside the ward, Kristen lives with several other women, all of whom have their own problems and oddities. This is a mental institution, after all. This in itself would be tough enough for Kristen, but this is a horror movie, after all, and so there’s more going on here than just irritating ward-mates. Kristen begins seeing a strange woman walking the halls at night, and eventually this woman, who Kristen comes to believe is a ghost, attacks her in the shower.
When the women in the ward begin to disappear one by one, Kristen fears the ghost is murdering them, and so she decides to investigate, searching for both the identity of the ghost and the reason why it wants to kill them. What she finds ultimately leads to the obligatory twist ending, which is both unnecessary and unexciting. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
I can’t say that I liked THE WARD, and there are several reasons why. First and foremost, the story is a bore. It’s simply not hard-hitting enough to work either on a dramatic level—showing the horrors of institutional living, for example— or on the level of a decent horror movie. Nothing Kristen goes through is all that grueling. Her ward-mates have their issues, but Kristen more than holds her own against them. In fact, she even emerges as their leader.
The ghost isn’t scary, which is another huge drawback. Make a horror movie about a murderous ghost, you want that ghost to be terrifying. This one is not. Sure, she commits murder, but the murder scenes are brief and not very frightening. Neither is much else about the movie. Kristen does have to endure shock therapy at the hands of Dr. Stringer, but even this sequence isn’t all that…..shocking. (heh, heh!).
The ending to THE WARD falls flat, and the plot twist doesn’t help. The movie would have been better off without it. It doesn’t ruin the movie by any means (No M. Night Shyamalan disasters here) but it doesn’t add anything either, other than a lament and a sigh that screenwriters Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen decided to go this route.
THE WARD is all rather mediocre and mild, not at all what you would expect, considering this story takes place inside a mental institution.
Still, there are a few creepy moments here and there, scenes where John Carpenter’s considerable talents are on display. Carpenter can still create suspenseful scenes. There’s just not enough of them in this movie. And most of these occur early on in the movie, when the ghost creeps about the darkened institution. There’s a particularly creepy thunderstorm sequence when the power goes out momentarily. But towards the end of the movie, when the suspense should be cranked up several notches, it isn’t.
The cast isn’t bad either. Amber Heard acquits herself well as Kristen. Heard, as you might remember, starred opposite Nicholas Cage in DRIVE ANGRY 3D (2011), and she was also in ZOMBIELAND (2009). While she’s fine here, she was certainly more memorable in DRIVE ANGRY 3D. It doesn’t hurt that she’s beautiful.
Jared Harris is also very good as Dr. Stringer, giving the good doctor some depth, and preventing him from being a cliché. We just saw Harris as Professor Moriarty in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes sequel SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011). I liked Harris better as Moriarty, but he’s certainly good in THE WARD as well.
The cast also includes Danielle Panabaker, as Sarah, one of Kristen’s ward-mates . Panabaker starred in THE CRAZIES (2010), and Lyndsy Fonseca as Iris, another ward-mate, who we saw as Kick-Ass’s girlfriend in KICK-ASS (2010).
And no, Carpenter didn’t write the music for this one. That honor went to Mark Kilian. Too bad. A John Carpenter film score would have added some oomph.
THE WARD is a minor film directed by a master of the genre. I love John Carpenter’s early work and a handful of his later movies, but THE WARD isn’t one of them.
For a movie about a murderous ghost inside a mental institution, THE WARD is painfully sane and sanitary. No need to check yourself in.
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda