John Carpenter’s The Ward has plenty going for it, even if he’s working with a pedestrian script

John Carpenter’s The Ward – 2011

Directed by John Carpenter

Starring Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mika Boorem, Jared Harris, Susana Burney, Dan Anderson

Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen

The best of John Carpenter is among the best films of the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and Starman are as relevant now as they were when released, all those years ago.  His methods are simple and effective.  Lingering on a seemingly deserted scene.  Shadows moving in and out of the frame.  Characters who are not sure what they saw or what they are headed to.  And the score.  Always, a haunting score.  Many of these things are in effect here, and Carpenter employs them as effectively as he ever has.  Given an apparently blank canvas, Carpenter could make you scream to look at it.

The Ward is almost there.  He takes a  dank and unremarkable atmosphere of a psych ward in the 60’s and makes it at once ordinary and terrifying.  There are characters, such as Nurse Lundt, who carries herself like a malevolent bland vessel, a walking talking version of Michael Meyers, with access to the keys and the drugs.  In pleasant contrast, you have Roy, an orderly who cannot be swayed and has no agenda.  He’s doing his job, and the worst part of his personality is that he believes the characters in the story to be crazy.  It’s quite a relief to see an orderly who is not raping, beating or killing inmates for fun for a change.

On the other hand, we have the inmates.  Each one of them seems to play to one cliché or another.  You have the introvert cradling a bunny, a flirt, a loony extrovert and the kind artist who wants to befriend the new inmate, the rebellious Kristen, who wants nothing more than to escape.  These folks go through some poorly written and even more poorly acted scenes of exposition early on.  If you can push through, you will be rewarded with some average Carpenter thrills and chills (better than the best work of most other directors) leading to an altogether predictable resolution.

The key to enjoying Carpenter is not just whether you like the story, however.  His style works best with the simplest premise.  If you think back on his best work, its always been what you don’t see, as compared to what you do see.  The occasional struck cord at the right time.  He uses those tools effectively here, taking what is a completely average script.  Elevating the average to the above average, the above average to classic.

An interesting take on the Carpenter style is shown in the opening credits of The Ward.  The scenes hang silently, reminiscent of the opening scenes of Halloween, until you finally come upon a terrified girl, who is very quickly and awkwardly dispatched. The scene’s conclusion was not among his best.   I could watch the beginning over and over, ad nauseum.

His work since the early 90’s has been a battle between small budgets and poor script-writing.  On the other hand, when exactly has he ever had a remarkable script to work with since he wrote most of them himself in the 80’s?  In the best Hollywood tradition, as the box office receipts declined, so did the budgets and the talent surrounding him.  What remained was Carpenter’s own talent and abilities.  If you want to see those, they are present here more than in any movie since 1994’s In The Mouth Of Madness.

There is plenty enough to inspire the viewer in this movie.  Unfortunately not much of it has to do with any of the women on the screen, outside of the afore-mentioned Nurse.  Jared Harris as Dr. Stringer, whose remarkable work in Fringe helped to set that show apart, is kind of bland here.  You know he could be wretchedly evil, based on his earlier work, but Carpenter just leaves you to wonder, instead of hitting you over the head with obvious signs.  While not quite on par with his work with Donald Pleasence, the effect of not fully utilizing him as a stereo typical mad doctor is more a choice of Carpenter, I think, than of the writing.

This is a relatively minor work by Carpenter, to be sure.  He has done better stuff, but he has certainly done much worse.  His last movie, 2001’s horrible Ghosts on Mars, was an example of an artisan who was lost in his craft.  He has found his way back to the heart of his true talents here, even if it is the outer rings of his heart.  All he needs to do is let the camera linger on the right back drop, and hit the right chord a bit more often and we will be hooked.

(*** out of *****)

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