It had been about ten years since John Carpenter last directed a feature and his self-imposed retirement had been born of him finally losing his rag about the filmmaking process. Confessing he has lost his love for cinematic storytelling, Carpenter nevertheless shook off any rust by contributing an episode each to Mick Garris’ Masters Of Horror TV series, unsurprisingly turning in two of the best episodes which in turn finally got those dormant, directorial juices flowing once again.
What we eventually got was The Ward, a relatively by the book shocker involving a group of troubled girls being bothered by a supernatural entity while they cool their disturbed heels in a psychiatric hospital in the year of 1966. However, fans wondered exactly which Carpenter would return: the maestro who revolutionized the genre during the 70’s and 80’s, or the man whose 90’s hack work caused him to walk away from the business completely?
After being arrested for burning down an abandoned farmhouse, young amnesiac Kristen finds herself an unwilling resident of the Coos Bay Psychiatric Hospital where she’s thrown in with a ward full of other, similarly troubled women. While she slowly bonds with some – passive artist Iris, the childlike Zoey – and clashes with others – seductive mean girl Sarah, batshit Emily – she vainly tries to recall her past under the watch of the seemingly benevolent therapist Dr. Stringer. So far, so Girl, Interupted; but those waiting for a Carpenter style twist don’t have to wait long as Kirsten’s discovery that a girl named Tammy who was based in her room before she arrived has mysteriously gone missing comes at the same time a monstrous, corpse-like figure starts targeting the girls one at a time.
Splitting her time between trying to escape, striving to figure out the story behind the murderous wraith and having to weather some draconian treatments (it’s 1966 remember, so shock treatments are all the rage), Kristen realises that that everything is connected by a single name: Alice Hudson.
However, she’d better get a move on because her fellow patients are stubbonly dropping like flies, be it via violent misuse of a transorbital lobotomy, reckless operating of an electro shock device or just a good, old fashioned throat slashing and if she doesn’t put all the pieces together, she’ll be next.
Is Stringer actually intent on helping her or is he hiding something, and if he is, what?
What links everything that’s happened so far to a pyromaniac with memory loss and a girl-from-The-Ring wannabe with the complexion of a Walking Dead background zombie?
It may be something of a weird comparison to make, but The Ward feels like the cinematic equivalent of a retirement match for an aged WWE wrestler: it’s obvious that his glory days are far in the rearview mirror, but it still hits that nostalgia sweet spot, even though everyone needn’t have bothered. The brutal truth of the matter is this, if this movie hadn’t been made by the man who bequeathed the world such gems as Halloween, The Thing and They Live, no one would give two shits about The Ward and we would have all forgotten that it ever existed.
With that being said, despite the fact that it’s less of a triumphant comeback and more of an average victory lap for a remarkable career.
So as we slow-clap Carpenter out of the arena as he makes the most indistinct film of his filmography (yep, even more so than Memoirs Of An Invisible Man), let’s first pick out the good bits, because if I’m being honest, trashing John Carpenter makes me feel like I need a shower.
Thankfully pulling back on the excesses that made some of his 90’s work such a chore, Carpenter keeps things simple, locking us up with the characters in a single location and having the plot gradually unfurls as it goes and the choice to have a core cast comprised chiefly of women is vaguely reminiscent of a gender swapped version of The Thing. Containing such faces as Danielle Panabaker (already a genre veteran after appearing in the Friday the 13th remake the year before) and the increasingly notorious Amber Heard (faring far better here than she did in court, seeming cursed to forever waffle on about dogs and bee stings in seemingly endless memes), the cast do solid, but uninspiring work with each of them granted a single personality trait each and sticking to it dilegently. Of course, those of you who have seen The Ward will know why each of the young women are as thinly sketched as one of the portraits in Iris’ drawing book, but plot twist aside, only Heard and the silky larynx of Jared Harris are given permission to colour outside the lines for reasons I’ll dig into later. But as I alluded to earlier, The Ward runs as reliably as a reasonably priced car – it’ll get you where you want to go, but no one’s going to look twice.
The kills are respectable with the flinch inducing lobotomy – complete with a close-up on the eye as the spike goes in – taking the prize, but once again, matters are strictly pedestrian, no where near as off-putting silly as the camper parts of films like Ghosts Of Mars or Vampires, but the trade off means they’re nowhere near as memorable either with the entire enterprise fading into an obscure memory hours after the credits have rolled. You want proof? When I sat down to rewatch The Ward I found I’d actually forgotten what the plot flipping twist was. Forgetting some of the story details I can understand – but the twist? Did you forget Se7en’s twist, or The Sixth Sense for that matter? How about Saw, or Oldboy, or Fight Club? By definition, a great twist cannot be forgotten; and yet…
It probably didn’t help matters that The Ward’s twisty denouement is simply a stripped back copy of the jittery, 2003 psycho thriller, Identity which (Heads up, SPOILERS for both!) reveal that the simplistic characters – including Kristen – are actually all the manifestations of Alice Hudson’s multiple personalities who were created to protect her from an extremely traumatic childhood event and the inhuman figure is a representation of the therapy used to get rid of them all. It’s yet another spin on that old split personality trope, but it feels less like a shocking revelation to the audience and more like a lazy attempt to be subversive that merely makes shrug “oh, ok?” when you should be screaming “NO FUCKIN’ WAY!”.
And still, despite my complaining, The Ward remains a sturdy, if uninspiring, final chapter in the fascinating career of one of the most influential genre directors who ever called action, but he ever decides to add an appendices and return one more time, I’d appreciate it if he’d turn out something more memorable than this.