TIFF Movie Review: John Carpenter’s The Ward

Significantly better than either Vampires or Ghosts of Mars - his previous two features, now nearly a decade and slightly more than a decade old - The Ward may fall significantly short of his peak period work but it certainly shows a reversal of the downward trend of his last several features and demonstrates that there may some life in these bones yet.

Amber Heard stars as Kristen, a young woman who we meet running through the woods clad only in a slip, desperate to evade police long enough to make it to a mysterious and abandoned farmhouse which she promptly burns down on arrival. Her fit of arson lands Kristen in the secure ward of a mental hospital, a ward populated entirely by other young women of variable level of psychosis and here she will remain until diagnosed and, presumably, healed. But as the other girls tell her, nobody ever leaves. Not officially anyway, though several previous residents have simply disappeared.

Laced with effective jumps and some genuinely atmospheric moments, The Ward is a somewhat uneven affair. While the early scenes, in particular, show some vintage Carpenter flair with the camera moving steadily, inexorably through a series of complex dolly and crane shots and long, slow push ins, the signature style becomes less pronounced as the film progresses and finally ends up in a place difficult to distinguish from any number of young up and comers' work.

This sort of blanched personality is an overarching characteristic of the film, with striking characters and effective performances - to say nothing of a villain that could easily become the driving force of a new franchise - slowly being smoothed over, almost as if decisions were being made by committee rather than under the firm eye of one dominant personality. It feels a touch engineered, with elements of J-horror, classic slashers and haunted house stories brought to a cast designed to appeal to teenage girls and boys who like teenage girls while throwing in not particularly subtle nods to films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Identity.

The cast is a bit of a mixed bag with Jared Harris - you know his as the villain in season one of Fringe - turning in the best work as Kristen's physician, Dr Stringer. Heard is solid as is Lyndsey Fonseca as Iris while the other girls vary scene by scene, occasionally retreating into nervous tics and twitches rather than actually fleshing out fully believable characters. The cinematography and editing is a quite strong, both proving Carpenter can still work a mood with the best of them, though the score - not by Carpenter, incidentally - seems a bit mismatched at times and has a definite tendency to hit the jump moments with a much harder blast of noise than is really necessary.

Though not Carpenter's best work by a considerable margin, and though it had a tendency to recycle ideas from better films rather than really build its own, The Ward is still an effective and entertaining film. With any luck this return to feature films after nearly a decade long layoff will prove to be a warm up to even bigger and better things in the future.

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John Carpenter is a celebrated filmmaker who frequently has worked in the sci-fi and horror genres. He is one of the brand name filmmakers from the 1970’s-80’s. His filmography includes Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, many of which have already been remade or are currently in development for a big screen redo. Carptener’s career hit a slump in the 1990’s with films like Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Village of the Damned, Escape from LA, Vampire$ and. Ghosts of Mars. Carpenter has not made a feature film in almost nine years.

This year at the Toronto International Film Festival, Carpenter makes his return to the big screen with a film called The Ward. Does this mark a triumphant return for Carpenter? Unfortunately not.

Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (whose only other produced credit in the 2005 indie thriller Long Distance), the story follows a young woman named Kristen (played by Amber Heard) who is institutionalized after apparently setting fire to a house. Once inside “the ward,” Kristen becomes terrorized by a ghost of a former patient.

The plot is beyond derivative, and functions only so that Carpenter can serve unexplained jump scares at the audience (shocking reveals with loud musical cues). The film is shot in a more old-fashioned approach, which comes off more stilted than nostalgic. But who knows, the film might have worked a lot better in the 1980’s.

Kristen’s psychotic inmates are all, like herself, beautiful young women, the ugliest of which could maybe pass for a young version of Lauren Dern. Of course, this can be reasoned later in the plot to some degree (although I think it would be not much more than an excuse). But still, it all appears to be an excuse to shoot a shower sequence with all of the young women — which don’t get me wrong, I’m not against this sort of exploitation in genre films, but this serves almost no purpose and features no real nudity.

The ghost which is the center focus of the movie isn’t even remotely scary, and it doesn’t help that her make-up effects look poorly crafted (even for a lower budget independent feature). The story concludes with one of the most ridiculous twists, but not so ridiculous that you won’t see it coming from a mile away. Better filmmakers have pulled this ending off with much more believably in the last few years.

Heard is the highlight of the movie - her performance is believable even when the situation is not. Heard did the best she could with the material provided to her. The other characters are not much more than tired archetypes we’ve seen in movies time and time again. The movie works fine as a direct-to-dvd horror film, but will probably be judged harshly against Carpenter’s acclaimed past efforts. I’m trying not to do that, although the reason I decided to screen the film was because of Carpenter’s involvement. I think almost everyone will agree this is not on par with his previous filmography, even his subpar 90’s work.

I said on Twitter that The Ward might be the worst feature film I’ve watched theatrically this year. Let me clarify a couple points, as one of my colleagues took question to this comment — I have not, and have no plans, to see every movie released in 2010. Many of my colleagues have seen and reviewed all the major releases this year. And this is certainly not the worst movie released this year or any year.

They have seen supposed clunkers like Vampires Suck, Valentine’s Day or Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. I’m sure some of those films pose a challenge to sit through, and I don’t plan on testing my patience. I don’t see them all but I see more movies a month than most average people see theatrically in a year. But I have seen films some of my twitter followers have outted as some of the year’s worst: Cop Out, The Last Airbender, and Robin Hood. The most I can say is that those films were more enjoyable to me than The Ward.

That said, I feel bad for having said this publicly as the film has yet to secure distribution (something I was not aware of when I tweeted my comment). The worse case scenerio, this film will go direct to DVD and VOD. Like I said earlier, Carpenter is still a name brand, even if that is wearing thin.


A new horror film with the name John Carpenter attached to it may do several things to a movie fan: It may raise expectations unreasonably high, because after all, the guy who directed Halloween and The Thing (among many others) should be able to deliver Halloween or The Thing every time out, right?

It may raise memories of Mr. Carpenter's later films like Village of the Damned, Escape from LA, and Ghosts of Mars ... which could extinguish any interest whatsoever in the new movie.

Or it may simply please the old-school fans to see one of their favorite directors working again, so into the theater they walk with hopes held high. This is the best-case scenario, as I see it, and I do believe that those loyal fans will be rather pleased, because the old-fashioned ghost story called The Ward is easily Mr. Carpenter's most simply entertaining movie since 1995's In the Mouth of Madness.

Like that film (which died on release but quietly became a cult favorite), The Ward is still a step down from the director's best efforts and it has a few "issues" here and there, but I don't need a director to deliver a "classic" each time out. The Ward is a '70s-style psycho-thriller that's quick out of the gate, lean on the running time, and rather smoothly satisfying from start to finish.

As the movie opens we're introduced to a troubled young girl named Kristen (Amber Heard), who is being remanded to a mental hospital for setting a farmhouse on fire. After a few minor conflicts, Kristen settles in and gets slightly friendly with the other patients. There's the bossy Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), the confrontational Emily (Mamie Gummer), the sweet-natured Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), and the childlike Zoe (Laura-Leigh), and while Kristen has no interest in being hospitalized for very long (indeed she tries to escape almost instantly), she finds herself gradually warming up to her eccentric ward-mates.

Unfortunately the staff is run by a doctor with ulterior motives, the facility is an oppressive pit of a hospital ward, and there are rumors afloat regarding missing girls, nocturnal noises, and the real reason Kristen burned that farmhouse down in the first place. That's basically the first ten minutes of The Ward, plot-wise, and you're not getting any more than that. Let's just say that the screenplay (by Shawn and Michael Rassmussen) has a lot of stuff that could be considered spoilers ... and I do believe that "spoiling" a John Carpenter film is a federal offense. That's not to say The Ward is a convoluted story; actually it's quite slickly linear and wonderfully bereft of confusing gimmicks. (Like long, stupid dream sequences. I hate those and I think Carpenter does too.)

What doesn't work? Unfortunately it seems that Mr. Carpenter no longer scores his own films, which always worked really well for me, and The Ward has a musical spine that's moody and evocative in some quieter moments, but also gets overloud and distractingly bombastic on a few occasions. (Plus, why must every good >jolt<>The Ward feels a little bit like Lucky McKee's The Woods, in that it's a new horror movie that pays frequent homage to the creepier works of Dario Argento and Roman Polanski. Thematically and structurally, The Ward is perhaps best described as a "throwback" horror flick in that much of it feels like a thriller from 1978, but of course there's no generation gap on good scares, and this movie has a big juicy handful to toss at you.

As far as what Carpenter brings to the table ... the film is composed and shot in lovely fashion. Even the horribly generic recreation room in the mental ward is framed with sharp angles and crafty shadows. The practical effects (both the creepy ghost and the gory bits) are handled by veterans known as Berger & Nicotero. The Ward is also cut down to its bare essence (it runs about 88 minutes all told), and doesn't waste any time on superfluous character banter or narrative wheel-spinning. The cast of young ladies is quite excellent, and although it'd feel unfair to point out a particular "favorite," one must note that Ms. Gummer's performance is particularly memorable. (I guess that what happens when your mom is Meryl Streep.) And of course there's always a small but sly sense of humor that trickles in between the scary stuff.

So is The Ward a big "welcome back" to the virtually legendary John Carpenter? I'd say sure, provided you're not an old purist who demands a five-star classic or a young cynic who only knows the man's silliest movies. This might not be the epic sort of effort that the Carpenter fans have been waiting for, but it's still a damn good ghost story that knows how to mess with an audience.