John Carpenter’s The Ward

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.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.

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

*****(2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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10 Responses to John Carpenter’s The Ward

  1. Sergio – Oh, this does sound like a solid view. I’m so glad you found it worth the view. And it’s those smaller, more tightly-plotted films that can truly be effective. I’ll be honest; I’ve not seen this one. But it certainly sounds worth looking up.

    • Thanks Margot – I have a pretty low tolerance for the modern horror movie ‘aesthetic’ so I should add that while this does indulge in that, it is also more firmly plotted than you might expect, so I thought it was worthy of a short review anyway. I don’t think many people have seen this one (not at the cinema that’s for sure) and it was certainly an act of fan worship on the part of me and ‘Nick and Nora’ to track it down for its brief theatrical run in the UK.

  2. Skywatcher says:

    I hope that his career is back on track. I loved some of the earlier movies such as ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, HALLOWEEN, THE THING and STARMAN, but in recent years he seems to have lost some of his spark. I do think that he works best when his movies are on a smaller scale.

    • I definitely agree with you Skywatcher – his low budget efforts have tended to work best though there is much that I enjoy in more expansive and expensive movies like The Thing and Escape from LA (which personally I think is a great movie though I know I’m in a minority on this). He can clearly do a professional job with the likes of Memoirs of an Invisible Man but I’d much rather have Ghosts of Mars or John Carpenter’s Vampires even with their budget limitations and resolutely B-movie aspirations.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    First I ever heard of this one. It was neglected.

    • Hi Patti – it certainly was. In the UK it was released at the same as time as new features by Joe Dante and John Landis, two more of my favourite filmmakers from the 80s who have worked less and less visibly in the cinema though have been producing some great work on TV (especially their episodes for the Masters of Horror series).

  4. Hi Sergio, I wasn’t aware of THE WARD until now though I have seen Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and the two ESCAPE… flicks and maybe, just maybe, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED…I’m not sure. I’d, however, like to see ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. I’m not very comfortable watching films that have women institutionalised and forced into doing all kinds of things. THE CONCRETE JUNGLE, a B-grade film if I’ve seen one, might have influenced my view of such films though, given your fine review of Carpenter’s handling of THE WARD, I might give it a shot.

    • Hi Prashant – you raise a really important point here. There is this whole subgenre of lower grade flicks about ‘Women In Prison’ (known as WIP movies appropriately enough) which certainly doesn’t interest me (though amusingly it was used as the premise of an episode of the original Charlies Angels series, ‘Angels in Chains’ which was pretty delirious actually – they even did another one a couple of years later). On the other hand, you can go back as far as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari for movies which place women in mental institutions, though it was probably the Oscar-winning success of The Snake Pit that really made it a fit subject for non-exploitation cinema. The Carpenter is a better-than average shocker with some nice performances – if most of the gore were cut out I’d be happier but it’s not too heavy and the women characters didn’t feel exploited at least, which is crucial I think. Having said that, here is a rather amusing video built around that daft TV episode I mentioned …

  5. Thanks for the inputs, Sergio. I have seen a few episodes of the latter version of CHARLIE’S ANGELS (not being too fond of the series) and none of the original starring Farrah Fawcett. I’ll check out your link back home. I’m sure there are many low-grade WIP movies though, at this point of time, I can recall just two off the top of my head, namely CAGED HEAT by Jonathan Demme (imagine!) but, I guess, those were early days for him, and TERMINATOR 2 where Hamilton looked like she could take care of herself without the cyborg’s intervention. I haven’t seen THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI and THE SNAKE PIT, the latter being within the ken of my memory.

    • Admittedly I’m not sure I would ever particularly want to recommend Charlie’s Angels … On the other hand, Caligari, the original silent classic which you can view online here is a great classic of expressionist cinema and well worth an hour of anybody’s time! I’d completely forgotten about that part of Terminator 2 but it definitely falls right within the genre – good call mate!

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