Hoo, boy. The Ward, John Carpenter’s first feature film in ten years, isn’t completely awful; it is, at most, better than Ghosts of Mars. But if you’re a longtime Carpenter fan counting the minutes until you get to see it on VOD/in theaters/on Blu-ray/whatever, scale those expectations down. A whole lot.
Believe me, I don’t want to be saying this. The man has given us — especially during the years he was really on fire, 1976 to, let’s say, 1988 — one classic after another, and not just in the horror genre. Once upon a time, John Carpenter made the coolest movies around. That director, I fear, is long gone. He’s made no secret of the fact that after Ghosts of Mars, and probably during its difficult production, he lost it — his passion for the work, his reason for doing it, everything. He gained some of it back, he felt, with his two Masters of Horror episodes. But The Ward feels like the work of a man who’d just as soon be kicking back watching basketball. Or a man with bills to pay. It’s certainly not the work of an old master in it to prove something to the torture-porn youngsters, and it’s absolutely not the work of the youngster who made Halloween. Either way, there’s no passion here, no hunger. John Carpenter made this film because the script came his way and he was kinda sorta in the mood to say “Action” again — that’s pretty much what it feels like.
A good part of the blame for The Ward rests on the shoulders of the writers, Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who have cobbled up a cliché-ridden thriller set in an all-female psychiatric ward in 1966 (why 1966?). Kristen (Amber Heard) burns down a farmhouse at the beginning, then is whisked off to the ward, where strange things start happening. There’s a spectral presence in the ward, a very corporeal ghost from the looks of it — it can appear and disappear at will, and it can touch you and kill you. Kristen’s wardmates, like the quirkily crazy Emily (Mamie Gummer) and the infantile Zoey (Laura-Leigh), won’t talk about this presence, who we gather is named Alice and is out for revenge.
And guess what, none of this fucking matters because it all builds up to another goddamn twist ending that invalidates everything we’ve tried hard to invest ourselves in despite the script’s incompetence. While we wait, The Ward gives us, completely without irony, stereotypes older than dust. The Stern, Forbidding Nurse. The Skeevy Orderly. The Shrink Who May or May Not Be a Creep (Jared Harris). And about midway through there’s a scene where all the girls dance to some dorky ’60s song and it’s unquestionably the lamest thing I’ve ever seen in a John Carpenter film. I think if you watched The Fog and then watched this, you’d want to punch yourself in the face a few times. Ah, Debra Hill, you are sorely missed.
Amber Heard is okay here, as she’s been okay elsewhere; she goes through the mechanics of whatever emotions she’s playing, sometimes skillfully, but she’s not really feelin’ it and neither am I. She does spend the last act of the movie with a hairdo that explicitly calls out Kim Novak in Vertigo, which is nice, I guess, though some critics will make more of that than is there. As for Carpenter, he stoops to “gotcha” moments that even his inferiors have given up on, and technically The Ward feels as though it could’ve been made by anyone. The poor guy seems all alone out there — his peak cinematographer Dean Cundey is long gone, and he doesn’t even have Gary Kibbe any more; he has no musical fingerprints on this thing either. It’s as if he went with whatever cinematographer and composer weren’t doing anything else at the time (Yaron Orbach? Mark Kilian?). And there’s nobody remotely bad-ass here — no Charles Cyphers, no Tom Atkins, no Adrienne Barbeau as the nurse, nobody. For fuck’s sake, Starman was more hardcore than this film.
Goddamn it, I do not want to be saying any of this. John Carpenter is 63, though he looks a hell of a lot older, and God only knows whether he’ll bestir himself to direct another movie any time soon. The thought of this styleless weak tea possibly being his swan song makes me crazy. Whatever else happens, Carpenter is not “back.” This is not his “comeback.” This is not recognizably a Carpenter film, except for the (undistinguished) wide compositions, which aren’t even Panavision. Even Ghosts of Mars had some whiff of the former Carpenter — the bad-ass anti-heroes, the overbearing metal score — and those who actually found something to enjoy in that film might look at The Ward and shake their heads sadly.
I dunno, man; right now I don’t want any more films with John Carpenter’s name on them, if it means that he isn’t spiritually and creatively in the goddamn room. If he really just wants to sit around and watch basketball and pocket the checks from pointless remakes of the remainder of his catalog, maybe he should just do that and stop making it harder for us fans to remember why we ever got excited by his name on a movie.