The Ward (2010)
(15) Running time: 88 minutes
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
John Carpenter, the man responsible for some of the finest horror films of all time. See any horror list and you will find at least one of his films in the top five, more often than not two maybe three of his films in the top ten. Halloween very often graces the top of people’s lists, and after that you have such classics as The Thing, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape From New York, Prince of Darkness, They Live and one of the best horror films of the nineties, In The Mouth of Madness. Do you see where I am going with this yet? I’ll give you an idea. Carpenter’s last full length feature was Ghosts of Mars which was awful, and then there was a glimpse of that greatness once again with his short film for the Masters of Horror TV series, Cigarette Burns, followed by a second interesting entry in to the series, Pro-Life. The Ward is Carpenters first full length movie since Ghosts of Mars, and he had horror fans literally foaming at the mouth at his return. So, was the wait of almost ten years worth it?
Lets start with the plot shall we, a simple plot but a formula which tends to work and, in Carpenter’s hands, it should. We open with Amber Heard burning down a cabin in the woods and then standing back and staring at it, confused and with a look on her face like she is expecting the darn thing to talk back to her. It doesn’t start the film well. Heard may well be becoming this generations scream queen but my God she cannot act for toffee. Usually I find she works well when she is presented to look good, eye candy if you please but here she is dressed in such an unflattering manner that sadly her looks do not save her acting abilities. Cartered off by the police she is thrown in the loony bin in some massive hospital which, supposedly, gave Carpenter the idea for the film. The hospital itself looks like any hospital but we all know that hospitals can become very scary places if done right.
Carpenter gets the setting right, at times, others the actual size of the hospital is wasted and we tend to stick to just one area which is where Heard, who plays Kristen, spends the rest of the film. There are four other girls in Kristen’s ward, Emily (Mami Gummer), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Zoey (Laura Leigh) and Iris (Lyndsey Fonseca). The girls are kept under the watchful eye of Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney) and every now and then the girls have to pay a visit to the top man, Dr Stringer (Jared Harris). Add to this plot the disappearance of Alice (Mika Boorem) and a mysterious, possible ghost wandering the dark corridors hurting patients and we have the ingredients of what should, and could be a highly impressive take on One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, but with ghosts. If the sound of that tickles your fancy then by all means check this little horror out, but approach with caution.
I have to give Carpenter credit where credit is due, he has stuck to his guns and not fallen into the trap of needing gore every five minutes to sicken the viewer. What we have here is a very strong plot driven horror that attempts to build up its scares and draw the viewer in so that you become engrossed in the plot, the characters and then Carpenter can work his magic and hit you with a sudden scare. Sadly, it does not work. Why doesn’t it work? The acting is probably the first issue, it is dreadful and totally unconvincing, its as if no one really cared what they were doing or why and it makes the plot very difficult to engage with. Hats off to Jared Harris though as Dr Stringer, the only person here who gives an actual convincing performance. He lights up the screen everytime in a dark, menacing way and you are never quite sure of his intentions. But it is the girls on the ward who really start to grate at your patience with their irritating characters and unconvincing portrayal of people who have lost their minds. Not one of them comes across as being mad, and simply come across as school kids acting out scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest for their first ever stage play, it is THAT bad. And don’t even get me started on the scene where they all share a dance!
The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Alice does perk up your interest past the half way point as new plot threads come in to play, but here story becomes tiresome and suddenly you find out that you yourself are actually very clever because you have worked out the ending before it happens. But, Carpenter does deliver a good, if daft ending that, in all honesty, I did not see coming at all. And here lies the issue, everything is pretty much left for the finale. The build up just isn’t good enough to make the end worth the wait and when the final twenty odd minutes kick in, you start to become even more irritated and wish that all this had kicked off a bit sooner. We get some electrotherapy, the over used hand behind the shoulder routine, a girl chained up and just when it starts to get nasty the camera moves on to the next scene. It is all far more exciting than what has come before, but sadly feels like a film either trying too hard to play it safe or has simply run out of ideas. It very quickly loses its edge and the daft script does not help “there’s a ghost in here, the one I see in the halls” said so unconvincingly that you wanna jump in and take over acting duties just to help out!
To be fair, following an old style plot of slow build up to genuine scares is a decent, refreshing idea that I really really wanted to work. I miss the good old days of plot, atmosphere and the odd scare and from this, it would seem Carpenter does too and I say good on him for wanting to keep this formula alive. Ti West proved it can be done with House of the Devil, but sadly what we have here is a director following in Wes Cravens footsteps of coming across as being a bit, well, burned out really. It is sad to see the directors from all those years ago, who made us so happy to love horror, made us proud to love horror, actually helped us fall in love with horror release something like this. Craven did it with My Soul To Take, and now Carpenter. We just have to pray that Tobe Hooper comes up with the goods with Djin, which is on its way soon. The Ward is a lot better than some of the horror that is out there, but it just does not cut it with the superior stuff. And do you know what REALLY annoyed me is the very best scare in the entire film, and it is a good one at that, is left to the very end and it is at this point I cheered and remembered what Carpenter was capable of, too little too late.
[pt-filmtitle]John Carpenter’s The Ward[/pt-filmtitle]