Director John Carpenter, still desperately clinging to the fame brought on by his 1978 slasher classic Halloween, has unfortunately unleashed an evil upon the world even worse than Michael Myers and his countless and tireless sequels. This latest horror is his 2011 film, The Ward… or as you’ll more than likely see it billed, John Carpenter’s The Ward. Why Carpenter would be so eager to attach his name to this piece of dreck is beyond me, but given his last feature film was 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, it seems that Carpenter is desperate to be remembered again. Unfortunately, while Carpenter may be remembered for putting audiences through this excruciatingly dull horror film, the movie itself is almost entirely forgettable.
The film is your standard, paint-by-the-numbers horror film in just about every regard. Buxom young woman? Check. Questionable grip on sanity? Of course. “Gotcha” moments galore? You betcha. Entirely unsatisfying and almost too convenient conclusion? Better believe it. truth be told, the problems with the film start early on. I mean, the fact that these tropes have become so standard that “crazy girl being haunted” could have its own section at Blockbuster (although Netflix recommendations do get crazy specific… I’ll hafta check for this one) is only part of the problem.
The real issue is with the characters. Amber Heard is a talented actress. Furthermore, she’s done some solid horror work before. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is proof of that, but with The Ward, not even Heard can save the film. She’s burdened with carrying the movie, when there are a number of other talented actresses and actors that should share some of the weight. Instead the film lingers on its lead as she showers, walks around, and sometimes just sits. The film meticulously details the most mundane aspects of her life, with an occasional “boo” to keep the audience on its edge. For a first-time director, the problem of pacing would be understandable, but given Carpenter’s status as a veteran of horror, it’s difficult not to expect better from him.
The real issue is that none of the actresses are trusted with any elements of character development, not even Heard’s lead character, Kristen. The range of the actresses, who have all proven themselves more than capable in a number of other films, goes from “crazy and doesn’t know it” to “crazy and owns it.” Aside from the fact that all of these women are confined to a psych ward, they seemingly have nothing in common… but I can’t even say that for sure. One of the young women enjoys drawing, but that’s the closest thing to a personality trait the film delivers. While character development seems to be lacking in a number of horror movies, The Ward is made an even worse offender by claiming to be some sort of psychologically-fueled horror film. In order to be psychologically effective, the horror has to probe into the minds of the audience and characters alike. Unfortunately, The Ward does neither.
However, for as ineffective as the scares are and as tedious as the film itself is, there is one saving grace to The Ward, and that is the film’s setting. The 1960s, a time characterized by a deep misunderstanding of mental health and an even more pronounced distrust of psychology, is surprisingly just as effective as the actual set. The long and desolate corridors lend an eerie air to the film. In lieu of any real scares, the set design seems to offer the promise of a scare to come that, unfortunately, Carpenter never delivers. Nevertheless, the setting has some real potential and showed actual promise, unlike most of the other elements in the film.
In the end, Carpenter presents a mess of a movie. After such a long absence from the horror spotlight (even his Masters of Horror episodes were way back in 2006) it seems like Carpenter would want to return with a bang, not a whimper. Instead, we’re treated to fairly standard and alarmingly un-scary moments with a host of characters that deserved both better lives, complete with character development, and even better deaths, instead of the unceremonious and sometimes lazy death scenes that The Ward feeds its audience. What should have been compelling or at least frightening instead made me wish for time in an actual psych ward if it meant I didn’t have to finish watching this last-ditch effort from a former horror great.