Image: Echo Lake Productions
In 1978 John Carpenter inspired a generation of horror filmmakers with the slasher masterpiece Halloween. After making some of the best films of the 1970s and 1980s, he had something of a decline in fortune during the 90s, finally culminating in 2001’s risible Ghosts of Mars. He hasn’t directed a feature film until now.
After she’s caught setting fire to a farmhouse, amnesiac Kristen is dispatched to a mental institution. Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) seems benevolent enough, but Kristen soon realises that she and her fellow inmates are not alone on the ward. There’s a ghost in there with them, and she’s very angry.
First of all, those expecting a return to classic Carpenter form will be disappointed. The script for The Ward is undeniably lacklustre and there’s a twist that’s sadly predictable for those audience members who have been paying attention, or are at all familiar with the genre. That being said, there’s a sense of fun and workman-like skill that permeates the whole proceedings which will make genre fans feel at home.
Carpenter’s not been idle in his “retirement”, directing two of the best episodes of the sadly cancelled Showtime series Masters of Horror. In truth, The Ward would be more at home in that format. However, the director has a few tricks left up his sleeve, and several trademark techniques that are happily present and correct. There are plenty of nicely choreographed “boo” scares, multiple uses of his signature “where’s it gone?” panning back and forth shot, and he marshals his cast well.
Horror stalwart Heard (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) gives a strong performance as Kristen. She delivers some of the more ridiculous lines with admirable sincerity, and providing us with a solid centre to root for while convincing during Kristen’s violent outburst. Harris (Mad Men) can play moral ambiguity in his sleep, but he gives Dr. Stringer a warmth that makes it difficult to decide whose side we’re on. The other actresses are surprisingly effective given that their doomed characters fit too neatly into horror archetypes: mean/slutty Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), tough/unstable Emily (Mamie Gummer), arty/speccy Iris (Lyndsey Fonseca), and quiet/helpless Zoey (Laura-Leigh). Each of them does quite a bit with very little.
It’s cheesy, predictable hokum. But with a firm hand on the wheel, The Ward is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s like being told a story you’ve heard a thousand times by an elderly but beloved relative. You know it by heart, but he tells it well, and you enjoy hearing it. The ghost is effective in a low-budget sort of way and the set-pieces come together nicely. Carpenter may not have returned with a bang, rather a cinematic equivalent of cricking his knuckles. Non-devotees may wonder why it didn’t go straight to DVD, but it’s good to have the Master of Horror back. Even if it’s no In the Mouth of Madness, it’s better than Ghosts of Mars.
Deeply silly and cheesy. But if you can lower expectations and let Carpenter pull you in, it’s a fun spook story.