The Ward (2010). Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker and Jared Harris.
Mad Women in a Psychiatric Hospital would probably have been the title had Roger Corman produced this as John Carpenter returns after a 9 year break from movie-making to create this female-centred supernatural-inflected, psychological horror flick.
Working from a screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, which comes straight from the barrel marked “generic supernatural slasher”, it gamely tries to add interest and depth by inflecting things with a psychoanalytical twist.
Amber Heard’s Kristen is picked up by the fuzz in mid-60’s Oregon after running around the woods in her underwear and burning a deserted old farmhouse to the ground. Promptly carted off to the North Bend psychiatric institution (channelling the spirit of The Overlook Hotel in its bleak, bulky monstrosity), Jared Harris’s Dr Stringer (an unusually kind fellow to be found running a mental hospital in any movie) uses every technique at his disposable to try and unravel the mystery of her past. Running in parallel to this quest are the strange goings on at the facility itself where some malevolent force appears to be killing off the rag-tag bunch of female archetypes who share the titular ward with Kristen and share her desire to get out and get home.
Carpenter’s history with projects which he is not deeply invested in is pretty poor and it is important to point out that he is simply a director for hire on this one, adding no input at all to either the screenplay or the composition of the musical score (dubbing himself too old to get involved with that nonsense). That is a real shame because the script could certainly have been sharpened up a little bit – there are some neat ideas in it and a surprisingly cohesive frame for the narrative but it all feels a little underbaked, falling back on rampant genre cliche any time there seems to be a more interesting direction to head off in.
As far as Mark Kilian’s score is concerned, it is partially effective in creating that off-kilter atmosphere of creeping dread which horror requires but relies far too much on the old “childish whistling is kinda creepy” trope which can only carry it so far and doesn’t provide enough energy to propel the film forward in between the standard moments of frenzy.
You get a picture which feels like it is trying to evoke the tension and dread of the early slasher thrillers which Carpenter pioneered for an American audience. Yet what was fresh and new in the late 70’s feels pretty ordinary here. The standard slowly creeping, low-level steadicam shots inching along flickering, poorly lit corridors are ubiquitous, harnessing the mood and the measured pace of Halloween II where Michael Myers stalked the corridors of Haddonfield hospital. Indeed, that flick’s most iconic moment, the stunning needle to the eyeball death is evoked and referenced with aplomb here.
Something could have been learned from the stillness of “The Shape” which would have benefited this work though. The strange presence trying to knock off all those mad women inhabiting the hospital, quite apart from being rendered in make-up which looks like an experimental aborted trial run for Regan’s possessed face in The Exorcist, simply flails around too much and in moving like an extrovert becomes silly rather than scary. The antagonist should be controlled where the prey are fearful if the tension is to build successfully. A supernatural foe shouldn’t be seen to screech round corners in pursuit of their victims.
Despite the many generic pitfalls though , there are signs that there is a talented craftsman behind the film. Carpenter’s use of the widescreen lens looks as gorgeous as ever, particularly in those opening scenes where he can show off the lustrous grain-growing agricultural lands of Oregon. However, as soon as the film anchors itself into the confines of the psychiatric hospital that expansiveness necessarily retreats and creates a conflict between the space which the choice of lens creates and the necessarily claustrophobic, locked-in nature of the story which is being told.
Looked at as the probable final motion picture of a really influential director who made a slew of really fun genre pics it is disappointingly middling. Competent and cliched rather than imaginative and energetic , it feels like Carpenter simply wanted to direct another film but didn’t really care too much what it was. The feeling hangs over the whole enterprise that it was added to his slate simply because the script was there at a time he decided to make one more flick- not because he saw anything really worthwhile in it as a story.
Given that not doing so would have left Ghosts Of Mars as his final cinematic offering to the world, it is probably a good thing as this at least shows he still has an ability to create tension and atmosphere, delivering some nice little jump scares in a film which is a fine enough retread of ground previously covered but just makes you pine for those past glories.