Yesterday I got to do something that I have never done in all of my years as a filmgoer. I got to buy a ticket to a new John Carpenter film. I was too young when Vampires came out and Ghosts On Mars was gone from theaters before I could get a chance. Given the manhandled release that The Ward is getting it was one I wasn’t sure I would get to have this time around either. I felt positively giddy doing it. I’ve loved Carpenter for as long as I’ve loved movies and getting to sit in a seat watch the lights go down and not know what was coming next was a thrill I doubt will be equaled this movie going year.
As for the film itself, for all of its flaws, Carpenter’s last film is no longer Ghosts On Mars. And that in and of itself is worth the price of admission. Like I said, The Ward is a flawed film and unfortunately the nature of its flaws are pretty tough to get over. But it’s also, for the majority of its runtime a great little programmer. With its ineffective moments balanced by some awfully effective ones. Easily his best film since They Live, which true might be damning it with faint praise, but still has to count for something. If we take his two Master’s Of Horror episodes to represent the parameters of what to expect from this new phase of Carpenter’s career, with Cigarette Burns as the high point and Pro Life as the tone deaf low, The Ward falls almost exactly in the middle. What can be said of The Ward except that it works until it doesn’t. Hamstrung by an ending that can only be described as “unfortunate” and “Shyamalanesque.”
The Ward follows Amber Heard once again proving herself an effective lead in a film that few will see. She arrives at the sinister mental institution, under the command of Jared Harris who keeps us guessing whether or not we can trust his all too reasonable Doctor for much longer then seems logically possible. There she finds that the girls on The Ward tend to disappear, with everyone seemingly afraid to talk about them after they go. Is it a sinister conspiracy? Or something else? This of course brings to mind Sucker Punch and Shutter Island, and surprisingly there are elements of both in The Ward. Though not in the way one might expect.
The Ward is decidedly low key for the most part, subsisting on an understated hum of paranoia and tension, though there are a few moments where Carpenter cuts loose and shows that he still has some wild images and great set pieces in him.
There are a few other problems the sadly anonymous score (strange that it couldn’t get the full Carpenter treatment given how influential Carpenter’s work has been in the last couple of years). But towering over them all is that ending. In all fairness it is decidedly not tacked on, pay careful attention to Jared Harris’s dialogue. And when one thinks about it, SPOILERS, it plays as a clever twist on Carpenter’s classic “siege” story, telling the story of a personality under siege instead of a community.
But the fact remains that it just doesn’t work on a gut level, no matter how much you rationalize it. Still, all in all The Ward is a fun film and a worthy effort.
Now how about another Carpenter?