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< be accompanied by a shocking BOLT from the orchestra? Carpenter can deliver a good jolt without aural training wheels, believe me.) Aside from that, I'm out of tangible complaints. 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.
[Editor’s Note: One of The Ward’s producers, Peter Block, has recently been made President of FEARnet. That association had no influence on this review; as always, Scott’s opinions are his own.]