This a man who has directed legitimately great action pictures (Assault on Precinct 13 , Escape from New York ), several superb horror films (Halloween , The Fog , The Thing ) plus a plethora of films that are widely hailed as cult classics and gaining more respect and devotion by the year (Big Trouble in Little China , Prince of Darkness , They Live  In The Mouth of Madness ).
And yet, there should be no mistake about The Ward, either. It’s a handsome, sturdily-crafted genre film, and an effective yarn that, until the very end, cloaks its true nature suspensefully. In some ways, John Carpenter’s The Ward distinguishes itself most by what it is not, rather than what it is. But more on that cryptic-sounding description in a moment.
The Ward tells the story of a young girl named Kristen (Amber Heard) in the year 1966. After intentionally burning down a white, rural farmhouse, she is taken to the imposing, grim North Bend Psychiatric Hospital.
There, she is warehoused on a ward with a group of girls who have been similarly designated “lost causes.” The other girls show Kirsten the lay of the land, including “The Sad People:” a couple who occasionally look down mournfully at the girls from Dr. Stringer’s (Jared Harris) office window.
The girls in the ward are treated cruelly by the staff, and live on a steady diet of pills and electro-shock therapy. Even more disturbing than that, there appears to be some kind of angry specter haunting the Ward: the decaying corpse of a former patient, Alice Hudson.
Alice apparently wants revenge against the current inhabitants of the ward for some unspecified wrong, and sets about capturing the girls…one by one. After Alice takes her captives, they seem to disappear from the hospital, and Kristen can’t get answers from the uncooperative, sullen staff.
“You can’t get them to tell you anything around here,” she is informed.
Finally, Alice comes calling for Kristen, a real “survivor.” Kristen confronts Dr. Stringer and demands from him the truth about Alice Hudson.
“I don’t like the dark. Bad things happen in the dark.”
Although some critics have pointed out surface similarities between John Carpenter’s The Ward and another horror film of recent vintage from another big name director, the final resolution of the drama here is almost less important than the specifics of the journey. First and foremost, The Ward seems to be a mood piece.
In particular, Carpenter’s The Ward provides a detailed evocation of a bygone era (and also, therefore, that era’s belief system). With touches both small and meticulous, the film crafts a case regarding American society’s abandonment of the mentally ill. They are locked them away in fearsome places such as North Bend, a mid-20th Century facility that, today, seems both prehistoric and barbaric. The film opens (over the main credits) with disturbing images (literary and visual) of the mistreatment of the mentally ill across the span of history.
Carpenter’s camera lovingly lingers on the byzantine details of this unpleasant purgatory: on an antiquated intercom system, on an old record player, on the ward’s one and only TV set (which plays scenes from the Bert I. Gordon movie, Tormented ), and the crumbling, utilitarian, labyrinthine walls of the facility itself.
Carpenter’s camera probes, stalks and otherwise explores this setting relentlessly. As viewers, we thus visually glean the idea of the Ward as a maze from which there is no escape. There are paths up and down (a dumbwaiter in the basement; an uncooperative elevator to traverse floors) but there is never a way out. The only exteriors in the film, after the prologue — to the best of my memory — are establishing shots, or one brief view of the courtyard. But mostly John Carpenter’s The Ward remains inside the belly of the beast. And without giving away the denouement, this is an example of form expertly echoing content.
Since The Ward concerns mental illness, Carpenter also uses a wide variety of techniques to suggest the fracturing of sanity, or consensus reality. He carves up the characters’ already crumbling sense of time and space with frequent dissolves and jump cuts. Such visual styling make a point about the brevity of human life, but also the seemingly-eternal nature of North Bend by comparison. Characters seem to jump and hiccup, shift and disappear, in the sands of time. But the walls of North Bend are forever.
Above I noted that what John Carpenter’s The Ward “isn’t” is perhaps as critical as what the film “is.” Permit me to explain. This is a horror film entirely devoid of any self-referential twaddle, goofy self-conscious “look at me” moments, and many of the bells and whistles that have come to adorn the genre in the last few years.
Instead, there’s an almost old-fashioned sense of naivete to the characters and their setting here that, in terms of Carpenter’s own career, harks back most closely to Halloween (1978). The movie isn’t over-girded with distractions and since there’s no googling, no texting and no cell phones are present, The Ward’s atmosphere is something akin to landing in a time warp.
At times during the film, we feel like we are in 1966 too, in that mental ward of the damned (which to my eye, resembles Kubrick’s Overlook from an exterior perspective…) right alongside Heard’s Kristen. Heard is pretty compelling in the film too (though I didn’t care much for in Drive Angry), and here she closely resembles a young Tippi Hedren, especially when she pulls her hair back.
One scene in the film that perfectly captures the innocent nature of the film’s characters. The girls of the ward put on a record album and begin to dance together without self-consciousness. It feels like a completely spontaneous, childish moment — an outburst of joy — right down to the upbeat nature of the 1960s rock music. The scene only shifts to something darkwhen Carpenter unexpectedly switches angles on us — to an ominous tracking shot moving, pushing into the room. It’s as if the reality of the maze, of North Bend itself encroaches on this bubble of innocence and shatters it before it can truly breathe or flower.
Some critics have commented negatively on Carpenter’s ubiquitous, trademark tracking shots and pans, noting that they are overdone or in some way boredom-provoking.
Again, I differ. These shots effectively create an almost trance-like effect in the audience, lulling it into a false sense of security before the next jump scare, zinger or attack. For all intents and purposes, The Ward is about visiting a very specific, pre-Internet world and getting trapped there for ninety minutes, unable to navigate a way out. The devil is in the details and in the accomplished visual presentation. Carpenter truly aces this aspect of the film.
I’ve also read some critics wonder why Carpenter made this film at all, and the answer seems plain based on the imagery of The Ward. He had the unique opportunity to recreate the year 1966 on film, and a dark corner of 1966 at that. Creating that era — a moment from his own youth, even — must have proven an irresistible assignment for the director, and the period details here are nothing shy of exquisite; from the knobs on the electroshock machine to the look of the glass drug syringes (which we see breaking human skin).
There’s no doubt this is a different Carpenter than we have seen in some time. For all their respective virtues, Vampires (1998) and even my beloved Ghosts of Mars (2001) featured at least some sense of cheesiness or cheeky humor. Not The Ward. This film is stripped down, efficient, and serious.
The only question then, becomes, are such virtues enough to earn Carpenter the approbation of audiences today? Some fans may feel he has ably re-connected with his sense of focus, but has done so in the wrong vehicle: a predictable and fairly familiar story of mental illness and abuse.
I’m not sure this is the wrong vehicle, frankly. While it’s absolutely true that The Ward is not a cerebral, idea-a-minute effort such as Prince of Darkness, They Live, or even In The Mouth of Madness, The Ward does land us — in visceral terms — in a pretty horrific corner of the Earth.
In the last two days I’ve reviewed Dawning, a horror film by a newcomer, and The Ward, a horror film by a master. Both directors and both productions superbly forge atmospheres of dread and pin down the specifics of a very frightening, limited location (a cabin the woods, and a mental hospital in the 1960s, respectively).
Recent horror films such as My Bloody Valentine (2009), Friday the 13th (2009), Piranha 3-D (2010) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) have all failed rather egregiously in this regard. My Bloody Valentine was set in a poor mining town, but that world never felt real and was never excavated in the slightest. Setting was mere backdrop for the film’s 3-D, coming-at-ya effects. A Nightmare on Elm Street was gruesome, and yet never actually scary. Piranha 3-D was stupid in an aggressive, muscular and fun fashion, and yet never for a moment did it create a world that audiences could believe in, recognize or “get into.”
With efforts such as Dawning and Carpenter’s The Ward it’s possible (though not probable…) we’re seeing the genre self-correct; moving back to a sturdier foundation, one constructed upon mood, atmosphere and close attention to details of mood and setting.
The old pleasures of the horror film, you might even term these welcome touches.
I certainly hope that’s the case. John Carpenter’s films usually age remarkably well, rising above their flashier contemporary brethren and standing the test of time.
There’s absolutely no reason to suspect The Ward is going to be any different.