John Carpenter. That name should remind any cinephile of classic horror films like Halloween and The Thing (the latter I had the pleasure of seeing in the cinema back in 2009). His last two films were the forgettable Ghosts of Mars and Vampires. Anyway, The Ward is a return to form.
A police patrol car prowls the fields of Oregon in 1966. The officers are on the look-out for a beautiful young woman named Kristen (Amber Heard), who is caught after setting fire to a farm house and taken to a mysterious ward inside North Bend Psychiatric Hospital. Kristen has no idea who she is or why she is being held but the four other patients in the ward are also young women displaying various psychological problems. Kristen finds herself surrounded by staff, including a sympathetic doctor (Jared Harris), all withholding secrets and at night, when the lights go out, one of those secrets roams the hospital. One-by-one the girls are picked off and Kristen must find a way to uncover the truth or escape.
The plot is simple and familiar, a slasher film with various “types” getting picked off with medical implements. It is to Carpenter’s credit that the film feels well made as opposed to stale.
From the opening credits, atmosphere is used to unsettle a viewer as they view images of women being tortured – burning them as witches, lobotomy, electro-shock therapy, the type of stuff that makes me want to look away.
The film’s reliance on building up atmosphere feels so old fashioned when placed up against modern works like torture porn that lulls in the film are forgivable. The camera prowls corridors in a style reminiscent of vintage scenes from Halloween. It peeks and observes, helping to frame the atmosphere of the old hospital which is mysterious and unsettling. Speaking of old fashioned, there’s even a shower scene. Other memorable aspects are the film’s ghoul and the sound effects when the ghoul pops up with guttural is like vintage Akira Yamaoka.
The script is functional and it keeps the surprises for the last few minutes whilst playing on clichés. When Roy, a hospital orderly tells the beautiful Kristen, “I can be your best friend or a thorn in your side,” I was expecting the film to begin plying the whole, lecherous hospital staff trope, but it didn’t. Indeed, in keeping with the classic atmosphere, the actions of the hospital staff are ambiguous but that doesn’t stop characters being slightly one note but there’s a point and you’ll probably figure it out.
The principle actors manage to imbue their characters with a degree of personality to rise above type. Jared Harris (Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Fringe, Mad Men) succeeds the most, making a doctor who is sympathetic yet mysterious while a spirited Amber Heard (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Zombieland and the upcoming Drive Angry) is always watchable. The others fulfil their roles well enough.
The Ward doesn’t do anything new or outrageous but what it does, it does well and it features great moments of atmosphere and a few scares especially in a frantic last ten minutes when plot, characterisation, atmosphere and action mesh.
So, yes, the film is a partial return to form for John Carpenter. It is watchable, probably not the start of a franchise but enjoyable nonetheless. My advice would be to go in tabula rasa about films set in psychiatric hospitals and enjoy your stay in the ward…