It’s been ten years since the last John Carpenter feature film; after watching The Ward I could have waited another ten for him to get a script worthy of his time. The script for The Ward, by Shawn and Michael Rasmussen, is brutally bad, culminating in a hideous twist ending that will make any genre fan roll their eyes.
The sad part is that it seems like Carpenter still has some semblence of ‘it.’ Despite being low budget there’s some style to The Ward. Carpenter uses some nice POV shots, and the camera often floats around in a way that almost builds tension… except that every jump scare the movie uses is blazingly obvious from a mile away. Still, I half-expected a movie that showed Carpenter simply didn’t care and The Ward proves that, even when they’re not being used for the best of reasons, the director’s filmmaking chops are still intact.
But everything else. Ugh. The Ward is the sort of movie where nobody acts in any way that feels identifiably human (Spoiler: I guess this could be explained by the twist, but the characters’ idiocy and terrible dialogue never reads like a clue but rather like a rotten script), and where none of the actors are up to the task of making up for that. Found at the site of a house fire she started, Kristen (Amber Heard) is taken to a mental hospital where she’s placed in the titular ward. There are some other girls there, and they harbor a dark secret which is tied into a dessicated ghost who keeps popping up and killing them. Kristen must try to escape before the ghost has a chance to kill her, too. Meanwhile, Jared Harris (aka Lane Pryce from Mad Men) is the girls’ doctor, and he may hold the secret to what is really going on. In case you care, which you probably won’t.
There are moments in The Ward, but they’re fleeting. By the time the movie comes down to an ersatz remake of Halloween II, with Kristen getting flung around the hospital by the ghost, you’ll be laughing instead of gasping. While some of the jump scares work, the film never builds to any real atmosphere, mostly because the picture is ruthlessly edited within an inch of its life. The first act in particular is just too fast, losing any chance for the audience to get into the story or get to know the characters.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the characters are so undefined (the other, of course, is revealed in the stupid twist). Each patient on the ward has a characteristic, and they bang the drum of that characteristic long and hard. One girl is infantile, another girl is mean but sexual, another girl is… well, I don’t know, annoying? They’re all kind of annoying. When they get killed off you feel pretty satisfied.
I have to admit that I was caught by surprise at the twist ending, but that was mostly because I didn’t think any movie - even one as abysmally written as this one - would be dumb enough to go there. I wonder what the actors were thinking when they got to the last pages of the script; did they just shrug at the horrible twist, simply happy to work with Carpenter or, more mercenarily, to get a paycheck? It’s hard to believe that anyone read The Ward and thought this twist ending was fresh, interesting or anything except a final assault on the intelligence of an audience whose basic intellect had been ignored for the previous ninety minutes.
I really wanted to like The Ward. I want John Carpenter back. I want to see more films from him. And there are a few moments in The Ward that have that magic, but in the end they’re swamped by everything else in the film. And everything else is bad.