Film review by: Witney Seibold
He’s rarely praised as such, but John Carpenter is probably one of the better working American film directors. He is often, perhaps unjustly, forgotten when the time comes to compile year-end lists, as he tends to work solely in genre entertainment. That he also hasn’t made a film in a decade probably doesn’t help. But Carpenter is a professionally-minded workman who knows how to shoot a scene in an instinctive and subtle way that many young (and even older) filmmakers have not even begun to grasp. This is proven by his modest released “The Ward,” which was released in theaters last week, and is already unfortunately sliding into obscurity. If you can, find the film, pay for it, and enjoy it in a theater, as you’ll find it to be a perfectly enjoyable psychothriller with atmospheric visuals, fantastic camerawork, and some really excellent acting from it’s young leads. That is also stars Amber Heard, admittedly a recent celebrity crush of mine, doesn’t hurt.
“The Ward” takes place in 1966, and follows the exploits of young woman named Kristen (Heard) who, at the film’s outset, is seen in a hospital gown, burning down an abandoned country house. She is apprehended and taken back to the local insane asylum run by the vaguely sadistic Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), and is populated by the usual Cuckoo’s Nest of young female patients, all played by some pretty good young ingenue types (Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca). The interiors of the insane asylum have a “Zodiac”-like period authenticity to them, feeling like they were actually lived in. Carpenter’s camera lilts slowly around the hallowed halls, allowing his story and Mark Kilian‘s fantastic score to do most of the heavy lifting.
A note: Carpenter often will score his own films. Kilian’s score, however, is no disservice to the director.
The insane asylum is the usual mix of one part genuine therapy for every nine parts brusque treatment by hard-eyed orderlies and Ratchet-like nurses; Kristen finds that the threat of electroshock therapy is always being dangled over the patients’ heads, and none of the staff seems to be very forthcoming about the fate of the mysterious Alice (played in flashbacks by Mika Boorem), who seems to have died recently. Kirsten, resolute and, by all visible indicators, sane and clear-thinking, resolves to find out the truth about Alice and escape the institution. Of course, we find, Alice is no mere victim, but is also a malevolent ghost who is stalking the hallways at night, occasionally popping up to scare people, and occasionally even killing them.
Carpenter is such a master of his craft that you’ll find yourself getting scared even when you are expecting the scare. Not one to give into quick edits and other cheap gimmicks to get the scare, Carpenter knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s not bringing any heavy-handed artistic interpretation to the proceedings (like in, say, Scorsese‘s “Shutter Island”), but a clear and refreshingly competent hand to a solid and thrilling spook story. Ghost in an insane asylum? Sign me up! Maybe it’s because Carpenter is a sixtysomething man who has directed some of the best genre films in American history, but “The Ward” has that one elusive quality that seems to be missing from so many films these days, and is especially absent from the frothing, wiggly nerd blockbusters that are leaking out of cinemas every week: Class. There is an element of class to “The Ward.” An erudite maturity. A genuine interest in the material, rather than a cheap cynical ironic riff on horror conventions. It’s noce that, after a decade of self-reflexive slashers, limp J-horror retreads, and putrid, irresponsible torture porn, that someone can make a horror film from the ground up again.
The film ends on a… Well, I’ll just say I don’t want to discuss the film’s ending, only to say that it’s one of those ending that rejiggers what we have learned to date. You may see the ending as a cheap shot, or perhaps even as a cliché, but it feels fine and natural to me, and I was not bothered too much by its conventionality. I think the thrills up to that point were so solid, I was willing to forgive.
It may have already left theaters, but if you can find it, go see it. It’s pretty danged good.