John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors. He created the modern slasher movie with 1978’s Halloween and did it with more skill, style, and actual scares than anything that followed. His is a specific, in my mind special, kind of B Movie. He specializes in making something out of a nothing budget and uses the camera and references to other genres (usually the Western) better than any of his contemporaries in Horror, certainly better than anyone toiling in the torture porn and remakes of today.
Saying that, one of Carpenter’s greatest is a remake, but I digress.
As big a fan as I am, I have no illusions all of Carpenter’s movies are winners. After directing Jeff Bridges to an Academy Award nomination in Starman, most of the latter two-thirds of Carpenter’s career have been middling efforts, some compromised by working for The Big Studios (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Escape from L.A), others just plain bad (Ghosts of Mars, notable now only for bringing us Early Statham).
Saying that, I absolutely love 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, but I digress.
It’s been ten years since John Carpenter’s last movie. The decade-long drought ends with The Ward, a small, claustrophobic, horror with a no-name cast; it’s vintage Carpenter. Or, at least, it has the trappings of vintage Carpenter.
Found standing before the burning farmhouse she ignited, Kristen (Zombieland’s Amber Heard) is hauled off to the North Bend Psychiatric hospital in 1966 Oregon. Under the care of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris, suspicious in accent if not in deed), Kristen is the New Girl among a group of other female patients, each fitting a neat stereotype. While the The Artist, The Little Girl in a Women’s Body, and The Bitch (Danielle Panabaker, who I’d wager auditioned for the lead) basically keep to themselves, The Out and Out Kuhrayzee (Mamie Gummer) gravitates to Kristen, who insists she doesn’t belong at North Bend and constantly plots an escape. Those efforts are thwarted not only by the hospital staff, but also by…Something Else.
One of the problems I had with The Ward is supernatural horror simply doesn’t scare me. Once you decide there’s no such thing as ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demons, or anything similar, it’s going to take a whale of movie about any of those things to scare you. To me, the idea what you’re seeing on-screen could actually happen is the scariest thing of all.
Saying that, Insidious, released earlier this year, is a supernatural horror movie that scared the hell out of me, but I digress.
Back to The Ward. It’s not scary. At all. Whereas Halloween was a slasher movie where the killer’s appearances on the periphery of everyday life in Haddonfield, Illinois were genuinely eerie, that film’s director has relied far too heavily on Jump Scares for most of his later career. The Ward is no exception. It doesn’t scare, it startles.
It does, however, take the time to develop its characters a bit or, minimally, give them characteristics. Most of today’s horror movie characters are meat puppets waiting for slaughter. They may as well be the actors playing themselves for all the development they’re given. By giving these captive girls some sense of humanity, The Ward tricks you into caring enough about them their deaths aren’t merely sport for you to giggle nervously during (or, if you’re Eli Roth, masturbate to).
By the way, The Ward also tricks you another way, but I’ll say no more. Once again, I digress.
Speaking of death, this isn’t torture porn. Yes, there’s violence. Yes, there are a few grisly deaths, but it’s handled with only a modicum of overt gore. Carpenter worked it the way it’s best worked and I appreciated that.
I also appreciated the running time. The Ward gets it done in 89 minutes with pacing just quick enough to maintain interest throughout. Saw III is almost two hours long, longer on DVD.
Like a lot of Carpenter’s movies, The Ward doesn’t so much end as it does stop, so that’s another demerit. Also, the music, by Mark Kilian, is Carpenter-like, but it isn’t the synthesized brilliance of The Man Himself; another let-down. Still, Carpenter can still place a camera and compose a beautiful Panavision shot, and that’s very much in evidence here. The establishing shots of North Bend’s exterior and atmospheric shots of its interior are universally effective and look great. There’s also a terrific opening title sequence that’s both visually interesting and sets the tone for what’s to come.
The Ward isn’t Great Carpenter, but it’s still Carpenter and, as such, a welcome return for this dedicated fan. Don’t wait another ten years, John. We need you.
* * 1/2
is on Twitter @JasonChirevas
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