The Ward

**½

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The H-Bomb: When I think of the big shot, or elite, horror film directors; the Cravens, the Hoopers, the Romeros, I recall the few great films that they’ve made, then I remember how sadly uneven they tend to be. For every good film Wes Craven puts out, he makes at least two crappy ones. Most of Tobe Hooper’s resume, post-“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, just makes me want to cry, and all of George A. Romero’s more recent efforts have been borderline torturous to sit through.

Of all of the old school “Masters of Horror,” the one I’ve personally always found to be the most reliable is John Carpenter. His seminal “Halloween” is considered one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and rightly so, with “The Thing” and “The Fog” being almost equally as incredible. “In the Mouth of Madness” is a worthwhile bit of Bin Booty, and even some of his non-scary efforts (“Escape from New York”, “Big Trouble in Little China”) can be a helluva lot of fun. Yeah, he’s got a few misfires, (“Escape from L.A.”, “Village of the Damned”), but unlike most other directors who specialize in this particular genre, Carpenter’s hits outnumber his misses.

So which category does his most recent offering, “The Ward”, fall into? Hit or miss? Well… neither, really. His first feature length film in a decade (since 2001’s “Ghosts of Mars”) is certainly not bad, but it isn’t all that good, either. It’s one of those rare cases of one of his films just landing somewhere in the middle for me.

The story, set in the 1960’s, centers around a young woman named Kristen (Amber Heard), who after burning down a farmhouse, is sent to a remote mental hospital in the Pacific Northwest. She’s put in an isolated ward with only four other girls, run by a Ratched-like nurse, guarded at night by a surly orderly, and overseen by Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), who seems like a nice, if slightly shady, fellow.

Pretty much off the bat, Kristen senses that there is something wrong about this place. She suspects that someone has been sneaking into her room at night, and she’s certain she’s seen a girl wandering the halls at night. She tries to ask the staff about this, but they simply stonewall her questions and tell her to take her meds. She then goes to her fellow patients, but they’re all nuts, and therefore not all that helpful.

There are definitely secrets being kept all over this place, and Kristen’s suspicions that all is not right at this quaint little funny farm are only amplified when the other girls start to disappear one by one. With some digging, Kristen comes to believe that the halls of the institution are being haunted by the ghost of a former patient named Alice, and now it’s up to her to find out who this Alice is, what happened to her, and what she wants.

As a bonafide fan of Carpenter, I am, to a degree, happy that he’s finally put out another film, so he at least won’t be going out on the abysmal “Ghosts of Mars”. However, I’m also a little disappointed that his first movie in ten years is really nothing more than an average, run of the mill ghost story. It has an eerie setting, and a handful of reasonably creepy moments, but overall, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before in better movies. Imagine “Girl, Interrupted” with a ghost thrown into the mix, and you get the basic idea. As far as horror movies set in insane asylums go, it’s far superior to that Halle Berry abomination “Gothika”, but doesn’t even come close to the super spooky “Session 9”.

Another aspect of “The Ward” that will surely disappoint fans of the director is the fact that he did not write the music score for it. Carpenter, in his heyday, was just as brilliant a composer as he was a filmmaker, and his music perfectly established the mood and tone for his films. His scores have always been highly distinctive, and since “The Ward” lacks a Carpenter score, it just doesn’t quite feel like a Carpenter film.

The plot itself is fairly intriguing, though, as stated, you’ve seen it all before. The mystery as to whether the ghost is real, or only exists in the “crazy” lead character’s head, could have been interesting, had that angle been more fully developed and explored. There actually are a couple of gory scenes, but people who thirst for blood and guts will, in all likelihood, be underwhelmed, since this really isn’t that kind of horror flick. There’s a twist at the end that I can honestly say I didn’t see coming, but I actually groaned out loud at how unoriginal it was. It’s an ending revelation that is blatantly ripped off of one film in particular, but since naming this film would give the twist away completely, it shall go unnamed (Hint: it starred John Cusack).

Among the performances, Heard and Harris come off the best, each delivering commendable turns. Everyone else, mainly the various girls in the psych ward, play varying degrees of crazy, and none of them really stand out. Again, just imagine the supporting characters from “Girl, Interrupted” and you get the gist.

It may sound as though I didn’t like “The Ward”, but that’s not exactly true. I most definitely didn’t dislike it. It’s simply that I was really hoping, after a decade’s absence, that Carpenter would really come back with a vengeance. But he didn’t. He came back with a film that was merely alright. And since he isn’t getting any younger, and only has so many films left in him, I really wanted more than “alright” from him. But “The Ward” is not a bad film. Not in the slightest. I say it makes for a perfectly decent rental around Halloween time, just don’t expect anything more than that.


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