>CULT MOVIE REVIEW: John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)


During the last twenty years, or since 1994 at least, director John Carpenter’s biggest problem may just have been that good is simply not good enough for many of his devoted admirers, and for many mainstream critics as well.  Myself included.
When gazing at Carpenter’s career accomplishments, it’s not difficult to discern why such high expectations endure.

This a man who has directed legitimately great action pictures (Assault on Precinct 13 [1976], Escape from New York [1981]), several superb horror films (Halloween [1978], The Fog [1980], The Thing [1982]) 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 [1986], Prince of Darkness [1987], They Live [1988] In The Mouth of Madness [1994]).  

Additionally, Carpenter’s films are re-made by Hollywood virtually every day (not always to good effect). And at the height of his mainstream popularity in the late eighties, movies with even tenuous relationships to the director were being sold in television commercials on the basis of having originated from “the mind of John Carpenter.” (Black Moon Rising).
So anticipation for a new Carpenter film is always sky high, and hungry horror fans desperately want him to deliver “another” Halloween or The Thing.  
Carpenter’s first feature film in ten years (since Ghosts of Mars) won’t satisfy that particular desire…if satisfaction of such a desire is even possible.

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.

“Welcome to Paradise”

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 [1960]), 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.


4 responses to “>CULT MOVIE REVIEW: John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)

  1. Re-watchability factor—yes, that's it! Some filmmakers do have that gift. Many of my friends enjoy his films and have seen them multiple times. I've only seen a couple of his films in the theater, mostly on VHS or DVD. But ever since I first saw some of his film on tv or VHS or DVD, I had friends who had seen his stuff on numerous occasions and recommended it to me.I've seen Dark Star a couple of times, and probably have watched Big Trouble in Little China a good half-dozen times; it always seems fresh. I don't expect to see Halloween, The Fog, Christine, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, or Escape From LA again; I'm not keen on horror at all, and saw those last three with my ex-wife who is a big horror fam. However, just because I didn't like them didn't mean they were bad films, they were good. (That is to say they were well done films, quite amazing, but I didn't love them. They are highly respected by me.) I'd like to see The Thing again. I will probably see Dark Star again and absolutely will see Big Trouble again, the one film of his I definitely love. There are several films I'd like to see but haven't–both versions of Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York, The Philadelphia Experiment, Starman, The Boy Who Could Fly, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and Ghosts of Mars. I enjoy sf, fantasy, and action films, and Carpenter is quite the phenomenal filmmaker in these genres. In a lot of ways, I think he rejuvenated all three of these fields—not just horror, which he is most renowned for by the general public. He's a master of action, a master of fantasy, a master of science fiction. I hope he continues to make films.Gordon Long

  2. Gordon:I love your comment, and your take on Carpenter as a master of action, fantasy and sci-fi as well as horror. I wrote in my book The Films of John Carpenter that he was really the "King of all Genres," and it's nice to see that somebody else sees his career, and his accomplishments in the same fashion. Don't miss Starman, and also Ghosts of Mars, if you can help it. Those are extraordinary sci-fi based films in my opinion, especially Starman. Everyone else hates Ghosts of Mars, but I get a supreme kick out of it as a futuristic take on the war film Zulu. If you look at in that light, it's kind of brilliant.I also agree with you regarding the re-watchability factor. It makes Carpenter a very special guy.best,JKM

  3. Just caught this one and enjoyed it quite a bit. I've been catching up with Carpenter's work lately (and doing my own blog posts on it), and have been really enjoying what I've seen. "The Ward" is a solid horror film, with a great atmosphere, some solid gore and a good set of jump scares. I can't see how a horror fan would be disappointed with it. As to the ending, I didn't see it coming, but my wife did. For my wife that was a bit a of a deal breaker, which surprised me. I can't say I was super fond of the ending, but it worked well enough with the rest of the film. As another poster noted, this is a solid double, not a home run. But no director hits that home run every time. And as you've said, it's just nice to have carpenter back.

  4. JKM: Most intelligent review on 'The Ward' I have been able to find! I have already seen it 4 times and will no doubt enjoy it again in the not-too-distant future. I admire Carpenter's ability to find scares without leaning on any universally affective superstitions to do so. As a trauma survivor who has been hospitalized with psychotic delusions I was thrilled to see that he has accurately captured the essence of the experience, it's practically a documentary! The 'reality' of 'The Ward' and its 'horror setting' that is part of the history of modern medicine, and the fact that our most powerful enemy is our own psyche, are elegantly and effectively expressed. Love it 🙂

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