You'd have to fight Judge Mike Rubino in an alley to make him watch this again.
Only sanity can keep you alive.
It's been nine years since John Carpenter, that once-unflappable auteur of the '80s, directed a feature film. Not that we've been yearning for one; ever since Kurt Russell surfed through post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, I've been worrying about this Master of Horror's late-career sensibilities. The Ward doesn't alleviate those concerns.
Facts of the Case
North Bend, Oregon, 1966: Kristen (Amber Heard, Drive Angry) is sentenced to a psychiatric hospital because she burned down a house. While the institution has its share of mean nurses, mysterious doctors, and strange practices, nothing quite measures up to the murderous ghost that haunts the hallways. As Kristen's fellow patients are picked off one by one, she uncovers the truth hiding beneath the cold, tiled veneer of the ward.
John Carpenter has lost his fire. To many, this isn't a new development—he arguably hasn't made a great film since the early '90s—but to me, it continues to be a source of frustration. The hope that he may be reigniting his passion for well-crafted moviemaking, similar to Francis Ford Coppola's indie resurgence, rested primarily in the hands of The Ward. Unfortunately, his first film since 2001's Ghosts of Mars is so blasé that it might as well have been made by Alan Smithee and released on TNT.
The Ward only succeeds in being average. The premise is all too familiar, especially with the recent crop of psychological thrillers about either A) a protagonist with a faulty memory, B) doctors with hidden agendas, or C) an institution filled with secrets. Screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen toss in a bunch of those elements, along with a generic twist ending that's predictable within the first 20 minutes. There's not a drop of Carpenter's quirkiness or minimalistic tension anywhere, and any frightening aspects of the film are cheap and unearned; every scare is a loud, quick startle, so much so that the orchestra must have pulled their collective rotator cuffs making all those musical shrieks. Carpenter doesn't explore Kristen's motivations or character, instead he just chugs along from point A to B, stopping every few minutes so that something can jump out at her. The poor CGI enhancements, sloppy editing, and cookie-cutter 1960s decor all contribute to the overwhelming sensation that Carpenter is just phoning this one in.
The movie's general ambivalence isn't confined to the direction or the story, it extends to the characters as well. Amber Heard does a serviceable job as Kristen, but her gang of female friends are ensemble caricatures. There's no reason to care about any of them, especially when you find out more and more about their sordid past. The staff in the hospital is no better, with maybe the exception of Jared Harris (Lane Pryce, Mad Men) as Dr. Stringer. While the nurses are all certifiably mean, Stringer's motives are at least a little mysterious throughout the film. Having one half-interesting minor character doesn't really help the 90-minute runtime feel any less like slog.
The standard definition release comes with a serviceable audio/video presentation. The film doesn't look particularly interesting (it's Carpenter's first wide-release film not shot in Panavision), but the colors and contrast are decent enough. He's relying on a lot of digital imaging and editing tricks this time around, which often feel too slick for the 1966 time period but mesh well with the overall tone of the film. The audio gets the job done, but the startling music cues sprinkled liberally around every corner tend to blow the rest of the mix out of the water. Composer Mark Kilian's score is fairly generic, although there are hints of Carpenter-esque synth and Goblin-style bells that give it a little bit of character. The only supplement on the disc, save the trailer, is a commentary track with Carpenter and Jared Harris. It's not particularly exciting or enlightening, but it at least shows that John Carpenter is still an intelligent moviemaker even if he does find the process tiresome.
The Ward is trying to land somewhere between Shutter Island and Argento's Suspiria. Instead, it's an exercise in generic horror practices, befitting a straight-to-DVD bargain collection. Despite the use of Carpenter's signature font (Albertus, in case you were wondering) in the excellent title sequence, there's hardly a trace of the director's distinguished style, humor, or craftsmanship. With a weak story, shallow characters, and a predictable twist, this film is strictly for people that like loud noises.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Arc Entertainment
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