John Carpenter’s best work exudes a kind of subtle magnetism rooted in minimalist atmosphere. Mainly I speak of Halloween and The Thing. Halloween stands among a golden few in the mostly empty slasher subgenre as an exercise in build-up. The Thing is all about environment and the paranoia that can wreak from it. Slasher tropes and environmental stigma mundanely come into play in Carpenter’s latest feature The Ward, his first full-length narrative since 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. The Ward shows off none of Carpenter’s abilities; it is a paint-by-numbers horror which can be thrown into the heap of forgettable and rote films the genre manages to produce year after year.
The year is 1966. A young woman runs through the woods in tattered undergarments. She approaches an abandoned farmhouse and sets it on fire. As she watches it burn, she drops to her knees; a big weight has clearly been lifted from her. Police find her and she is taken into custody. Her name is Kristen (Amber Heard), and she wakes up in a psychiatric hospital where she is put in a special ward with four other troubled girls; Iris (Lyndsey Fonseca), an artist, Zoey, (Laura Leigh) a girl who has retreated into child-like behavior, scattered Emily (Mamie Gummer) and prim nymphomaniac Sarah (Danielle Panabaker). Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) heads the ward, showing both concern and a clear knowledge that goes far past what the girls know about their situation. Nobody gets better on the ward; they simply disappear one by one. A ghost named Alice Hudson is haunting them, and Kristen cannot get any of the girls to reveal what they know about her. Sick of not getting answers, she becomes determined to escape the ward, going up against whoever decides to get in her way.
Every spooky scene contains a stylized thunderstorm. The ghost jumps up right on time after attempted suspenseful set-up. Nothing is effective enough; I was hoping Carpenter would be able to play with cliché and make something of it. But he plays the scares too straight, which would have been fine if the screenplay hadn’t been one of the most atrocious in recent memory. The material is unworkable, but the question still lingers whether Carpenter has lost his touch. It has been a while since he was able to scare, and The Ward is a throwaway film at best. With none of his trademark feats on display, it is sadly impossible to discern that this is a film made by someone considered a master by many.
Written by Shawn and Michael Rasmussen, this script carries the bare-bones minimum requirements for a story. The characters can all be poorly described with one word, and each scene displays wooden dialogue meant to push forward its superbly weak plot in some way. The film clocks in at eighty-eight minutes, and feels like it’s actively striving to fill up that time. Then there is the matter of the film’s final twist, a flat-out stupid faux clever add-on that desperately wants to surprise, but merely astounds in its idiocy. Final act shocks like this are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, and if you aren’t going to do it right, there is no point in doing it. With a perplexing one-minute explanation that sums up what we have just witnessed in a slipshod manner, the twist is the icing on the cake for a film that has zero original instinct.
Sorry to say, but a John Carpenter return-to-form seems less and less likely. The more he continues to wait long stretches and disappoint, the further we get from seeing what we loved about the filmmaker. It is beyond me why this first feature in many years was this written drivel. You can just see this screenplay getting tossed around in limbo for years and years before somehow getting saddled with the director. I stop to wonder if anyone involved actually saw something in this material or if everyone was going through the motions.