Film Review – The Ward
I’m just going to come out and say it: I love John Carpenter movies. Ok, not all of them, but I get excited whenever I hear a new Carpenter project is coming out. His last theatrical release was 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, which is not exactly at the top of my list of awesome John Carpenter movies. Just so you know where I stand, I place The Thing at the top of my list and Village of the Damned at the bottom (which I thought was even worse than the episodes he did for Masters of Horror, and those sucked). His latest film, The Ward, had a very limited release earlier this year and was released on DVD in August. There are a lot of his movies that I like even though I know they are bad (Escape from L.A. and Vampires), and I was worried that because of this movie’s nearly-straight-to-video release, this was going to be one of them. It is better than I thought it was going to be, but honestly, not as good as it should have been.
The story takes place in North Bend, Oregon, in 1966. The protagonist, Kristen (Amber Heard), has been arrested outside of a farmhouse, having set it ablaze. She is then admitted to a psychiatric facility, where she is under the care of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), who, according to the other inmates, is trying out some new and experimental treatments. Drugs, hypnotherapy, and electric shock are all utilized on Kristen to help her learn why she is there. (She is also suffering from amnesia.) She is placed in a ward with four other girls, taking the room of Tammy (Sali Sayler), who is no longer in residence. As time passes, Kristen becomes aware of the ghost of Alice Hudson (Mika Boorem), who not only haunts the facility, but is killing the girls in the ward off one by one. In the opening scene, we see that she is the agent behind Tammy’s “removal.” Kirsten also has dreams of a little girl chained in a basement being threatened by a large, ominous figure. It is unclear if these images are related to her past, or to that of Alice, but it quickly becomes clear to Kristen that she needs to get herself and the other girls out of there if they want to survive.
This is a middle-of-the-road horror story. Not much gore, scariness, or female exploitation. There is an obligatory group shower scene, but you don’t view much of anything. Amber Heard wanders around the beginning of the movie in a full slip, but unless you like 1960s humongous granny panties, there’s not really a lot to see. It’s as though Carpenter and the writers decided “well, we have some pretty girls in the movie, so let’s at least acknowledge that without going too far into it.” Which is fine. I am a woman who loves horror movies and I often have to ignore the female exploitation aspect in order to just get through things. Unfortunately, Carpenter and company also took a super restrained attitude toward gore and scares. With the exception of one scene, most of what could have been gory wasn’t. And, while I felt the movie had plenty of atmosphere, it wasn’t all that scary. The only real tension came when you could see Alice’s ghost, but the characters on screen had no idea of her presence.
The ghost is a real problem for me in this movie. She looks like a corpse with pulsating veins. The corpse part looks good; the pulsating veins do not. They look computer generated, and I assume they were. I want to a see a ghost that looks a corpse, not a corpse with computer wigglies on it. This is a case of more being too much. And while we are on the subject of what looks real, while I found Amber Heard to be a pretty enjoyable screen presence, in no way does she belong in the 1960s. In attitude, looks, and affect, she is purely a modern woman. The other characters give lip service to the ’60s through dress and hairstyle, but Heard just doesn’t fit in the right way. Slapping a pair of high-waisted jeans on her just wasn’t enough to create a believable character from that era.
In spite of the toned-down nature of this movie, I enjoyed it. I find a lot of modern movies, especially horror movies, don’t always make a lot of sense. A believable story is often sacrificed for action and thrills. While I wish this movie had focused a little more on those latter aspects, I really appreciated the fact that the conclusion proceeded logically from what had gone before. I cared about the characters, and while the ending was certainly no big surprise, it was justified. It’s a fine film: well put-together with believable performances. John Carpenter did not do the score for this film, composer Mark Kilian did, but it is very much in the Carpenter vein, and added a lot to the atmosphere.
The Ward is nothing special, but it’s certainly good enough to seek out, and way better than a lot of crap out there. It’s just not the kick-ass John Carpenter movie that I wanted it to be. But neither is it the travesty that I feared. It’s an okay movie by an uneven director, and sometimes that is good enough.
DVD Extras: There is a theatrical trailer and a commentary with John Carpenter and actor Jared Harris. I only listened to 20 minutes of the commentary, because I found it hard to engage with and I was sleepy. Here are some of the things I learned.
- It was filmed in Spokane, Washington. They liked the town and thought the food was good.
- None of the actresses were divas.
- Jared Harris is the son of Richard Harris.
- Carpenter feels he is too old to score his movies.
- Amber Heard is pretty.
- Why Jared Harris approached some scenes the way he did.
I can’t review something I have not seen in its entirety, but I think you get the picture. Carpenter and Harris appear amiable, but wander all over the place. It’s not good or bad, it just is.
Final Grade: C+