Writer-director-composer John Carpenter set the tone for anti-establishment genre pictures in the 70s and 80s. His hits included Halloween (1978) and Escape from New York (1981); even better was the 1982 version of The Thing, though my favourite is the witty satire on Reagan-economics, They Live (1988). But outside of horror and science fiction he also made a few terrific thrillers, most notably Assault on Precinct 13 (the original 1976 version, not the Ethan Hawke remake) and a clever riff on Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the TV-movie Someone is Watching Me (1978), which was ripped off endlessly in the 80s. His most recent is The Ward, or to give the official title with possessory credit, John Carpenter’s The Ward, a psychological thriller with more than a tinge of giallo to it.
With my good friends Nick and Nora (not their real names, but they are a fabulous husband-and-wife team who solve crimes with their adorable canine assistants) I went to see John Carpenter’s new film a little while ago when given a brief release in the UK. A supernatural suspenser it is set in the 1960s and is ostensibly about a ghost wreaking vengeance on a group of young women in a mental institution – or is it? Does consideration of this film really belong in a blog about mysteries and suspense? Well, probably not without getting into spoilers but here goes …
Amber Heard plays Kristen, a very disturbed young woman. After being arrested following a seemingly unexplainable act of pyromania she is sent to the titular psychiatric ward where ‘special’ treatment is being tried out. A seemingly kindly and understanding doctor (nicely underplayed by Jared Harris who was a superb Moriarty in the most recent Sherlock Holmes movie) is attempting to treat a variety of psychiatric conditions amongst his female patients, all of whom are kept secluded from the rest of the hospital. Then the women start being picked off one-by-one in grisly fashion by the angry ghost of an ex-patient of the good doctor.
Carpenter’s visual handling is typically unfussy but effective, with lots of his trademark steadicam shots and scary moments when people suddenly appear in the frame, though the editing is decidedly more rapid than his norm in the past. That bastion of low-budget filmmaking, a small number of agitated characters trapped in a single environment, suits Carpenter extremely well of course as he has applied the Rio Bravo siege story to many of his best movies in the past (such as Prince of Darkness, Ghosts of Mars as well as his aforementioned version The Thing and Precinct 13). The familiarity of approach works quite well here, not least because it helps the story keep its secrets, leading viewers to make certain assumptions about the storyline which the film intends to subvert by the end. In that sense it is important that viewers think of this as John Carpenter’s The Ward even though in this case the auteur is not listed as either writer or composer on this film.
What surprises in fact, without straying too far into spoiler territory, is that while the period setting in an isolated psychiatric institution is reminiscent of Scorsese’s Shutter Island and the by now very familiar Halloween / Friday 13 style slowly reducing of its cast of characters – a Giallo variant of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as seen quite recently in James Mangold’s Identity – never feels too old as the film juggles its different elements surprisingly well. Thus, for every suspense sequence as Kristen attempts to escape and Saw inspired torture-porn murder (which I could have done without to be honest), there are also some nicely played character moments for its good cast to play with (most notably Danielle Panabaker, late of the James Woods legal drama Shark where she played his troublesome daughter and who here gets the film’s grisliest death scene), and even a few minutes of respite with an unexpected dance sequence to keep the peaks and troughs of the trauma in good balance. In many ways, as the end credits roll over a series of freeze frames from the film over the sounds of a female vocalist, what the film ends up being most reminiscent of perhaps is a psychological suspense yarn in the Italian Giallo mould, which is absolutely not where I thought this tight little genre film would take me.
So it is with some relief that I say, ‘Welcome back Mr Carpenter – please, could we have some more?’
John Carpenter’s The Ward (2011)
Director: John Carpenter
Producers: Peter Block, Doug Mankoff, Mike Marcu, Andrew Spaulding
Screenplay: Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen
Cinematography: Yaron Orbach
Art Direction: Paul Peters
Music: Mark Kilian
Cast: Amber Heard, Jared Harris, Danielle Panabaker, Mamie Gummer