Dir:- John Carpenter
Starr:- Amanda Heard, Mamie Gummer, Jared Harris
John Carpenter is a director I have loved and admired since my early teens. The ways in which he radically transformed both the action movie and the horror movie, whilst operating on budgets that would barely even get a film scripted nowadays, still reverberate around Hollywood, even coming to define the style of much big-budget studio output. There isn’t a horror movie released today that isn’t indebted to Carpenter’s work on Halloween, The Fog, or The Thing, whilst Assault on Precinct 13 updated the western-action movie so effectively that we can barely relate a Die Hard, Commando, or Aliens to their cowboy and indian origins. The worrying thing for most Carpenter fans is that whereas the 70’s and 80’s saw Carpenter creating a new cinematic paradigm (pretty much unleashing the slasher genre), since the early 90’s Carpenter (and his work) has been in terminal decline, seemingly incapable, or unwilling, to move away from the increasingly hum-drum narrative elements he once pioneered.
Carpenter has frequently lashed out at critics for attempting to intellectualise a medium that he fervently believes to be nothing more than entertainment. His default defence over the last few years has been to accuse critics of ‘reading’ too much into his early work, thus making them incapable of enjoying the newer ‘entertainments’ he produces. Carpenter’s ‘anti-intellectualism’ seems to be a convenient front, allowing him to gloss over the dearth of original ideas and stylistic innovations in his modern work, by claiming to be giving the public what they want, namely entertainment. I’d agree with him if films like The Ward (by no means his worst work) even ventured close to fulfilling that obligation.
The Ward is a retread of the psychologically unstable narrator trope at the heart of his last decent movie In the Mouth of Madness. It also bears comparison to The Thing in the way in which it deals with the stress, strain and paranoia, isolation and confinement can bring upon a small group of individuals. Whereas The Thing featured an all male cast cut adrift in the Antarctic, The Ward features a majority female cast ensconced in the dull and sterile confines of a psychiatric ward. Both films have internal monsters roaming around out ‘there’.
Amanda Heard plays Kristen, a girl who has been picked up by police for torching a home. Heard is delivered into the custody of Jared Harris’s kindly/creepy psychiatrist and placed into a recently vacated room on an all female psych ward, alongside four other young women. From the moment of her confinement on the ward Kristen becomes aware of a malevolent presence that is stalking the girls and will not let them leave. Partly out of fear and partly out of anger, she resolves to find a way out of her predicament and off of the ward, but the staff thwart her every attempt and she begins to believe that this demonic presence is a dead girl who has come back to avenge herself upon the women who killed her.
At first Carpenter seems hell bent on choosing the path of least resistance. The psychiatric ward is housed in one of those depressingly 19th century, imposing, brick-built structures that always seem to grace such horror films, replete with cramped dumb-waiters and and a creepy basement mortuary. With the film being set in the late-60’s it is therefore perfectly fine to nick the decorative interior elements straight from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, whilst importing all the usual Hollywood mental-health bumph, therapeutic drawing, electro-shock treatments, pill-rounds. Despite this accumulation of cliches Carpenter cannot stop himself and thus we are treated to: a gratuitous group shower scene, with softer-than-soft-porn nudity (probably to remind us of Carrie), a bit of poltergeist bed rearranging, a random assortment of none-too-subtle symbolic discoveries, a front-lobal lobotomy and a CGI-created harridan, lurking around the frame, waiting for the opportune moment to go ‘boo’. It comes as some surprise then that the ending of the movie doesn’t resolve itself with the revelation that Mr. Harris is a cross-dressing homicidal maniac with a thing about his mother.
What is perhaps most frustrating of all when assessing Carpenter’s decline are those moments of ‘dazzle’ that remind you how great a filmmaker he was, and could still be. In one particular standout moment, whilst Kristen is being trollied to the electro-shock room, she woozily returns to consciousness and the camerawork gently elaborates the way her perceptions warp the corridor around her. It’s a technically outstanding shot, but an all-too-rare one.
In the end The Ward gains some watchability from the superior acting work of Amanda Heard, Mamie Gummer and the understated Jared Harris (who since his turn in Mad Men has seemingly got his career right back on track). Heard fills the damsel-in-distress role in much the same way as Jamie Lee Curtis did in the Halloween movies, never allowing her character to fall into caricature. Gummer is a supremely controlled ‘ditz’, in the Zooey Deschanel mode, who I’d be intrigued to see in meatier leading roles. Whilst Jared Harris does his best with a wafer-thin role as the therapist who is withholding a lot from his patient(s). The contrivances of the films climax are actually narratively neat and logical in all but one crucial detail, if Kristen is Alice and Alice is everyone else, then is she in the luxurious position of having a whole ward and a staff of four to herself? Criminally, Carpenter has created a horror film that almost wholly lacks horror, primarily because of the superficial contrivances that Carpenter resorts to in an attempt to liberate the movie from the paradigm of his own making. Alas, it seems the slow death of horror cinema cannot look to its old masters to resuscitate it.