It has been a full decade since that modern master of the macabre, John Carpenter, has made a feature film (his last one was 2001's rather tepidly received Ghosts of Mars), and although I can't rightfully say his new film, The Ward, is as they say, worth the wait, I can say it makes us realize just how much the director has been missed lo these past ten years. Set in a mental ward and revolving around a group of five young women and the ghost that seems to be out to kill them all (the opening, in typical Carpenter style, shows this ghost - a mix of something out of an old Mario Bava film and the girl from The Ring - taking down a sixth girl inside her locked cell) Carpenter's film rings of psychological drama blended seamlessly with classic horror.
Always the classicist, Carpenter still makes the kind of old fashioned horror films that scare through innuendo and anticipatory doom more than all-out gore (though a movie like The Thing surely has both) and The Ward is no different with the director's widescreen pans and peripheral shadowy terror turning the film into a petrified forest of classic horror tropes. Of course this approach to moviemaking may be a bit too old school for a generation brought up on Torture Porn and bad horror remakes (a couple of which are remakes of Carpenter films themselves) but for anyone who loves cinema as much as this critic does (and I am more than a bit of a classicist myself) this is just the right approach to take. Let's face it, I am more scared by something such as The Ward that I am by any of the 363 editions of Saw and Saw-like movies that have come out in the relatively short period of time since Carpenter's last film.
Now granted, this film does not work on every level as some of Carpenter's earlier films did. The characters do seem a bit cliche and somewhat cookie-cutter in a way and the final "twist" ending can be seen choreographed the proverbial mile away (an ending that has been used quite often in genre pictures, including in one of my favourite films of the last few years - but I won't mention it here just in case there are those who may not see its inevitable arrival) but the way Carpenter has put his film together (he is a visual master above everything else) and the way it is acted by the young brood of actresses playing the aforementioned parts, does tend to elevate the film above where it would have otherwise found itself.
Carpenter's inherent directorial prowess aside, a lot of the credit for this should be given to Amber Heard. Playing at being the new Grindhouse princess of sorts, the stunning Heard (smokin' hot with a biker chick's attitude!) grits her teeth, furrows her brow and lunges head first into her role as head psycho Kristen. The young actress is beginning to make a name for herself as a ballsy kick-ass action chick (playing opposite the even more ballsy, over-the-top Nic Cage in Drive Angry earlier this year only helps to lock in that persona) and in The Ward she has the opportunity to play crazy as crazy can be - even though seeming, at first, to be the sanest of these five locked-up girls.
One can compare the likes of these girls (also amongst them is Mamie Gummer, daughter of the great Meryl Streep, who by being the creepiest one in the whole damned movie, killer ghost included, proves that acting chops can indeed by inherited) and their realistic acting styles, even as they are playing stereotypes, to those pedophiliatic go-go girls with big guns in Zack Snyder's ridiculously childish Sucker Punch, and see that Carpenter, even with lesser material, still knows just what he is doing up there on that big screen. I suppose, in the end, even though it does not stack up to classic era Carpenter (aka, Assault on Precinct 13, the original Halloween, The Thing) perhaps The Ward was worth the decade long wait after all - even with its faults. [07/09/11]