Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: John Carpenter's The Ward


Starring: Amber Heard, Jared Harris, Lyndsey Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker and Mamie Gummer

As every horror fan knows, this film marks the directorial return of Carpenter after a ten year hiatus following 2001's less-than-spectacular Ghosts of Mars. In that time he did a couple episodes of Showtime's Masters of Horror that helped to get old Beer 'n Cigs back in a directing mood.

The film follows a young woman named Kristen (Amber Heard) who is committed to an institution after burning down a house. The trouble is, she can't remember anything before that. We are then introduced to the other girls of the ward. Emily (Mamie Gummer) is one of the most evidently troubled, next to Zoey (Laura-Leigh) who always carries a stuffed rabbit and is trapped in a child-like state. Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca) is the most immediately warm and welcoming to Kristen, and Sarah (Danielle Panabaker) is your stereotypical coldhearted bitch who sees herself as above the other girls, in particular the newcomer. An interesting role for Panabaker, as it's the polar opposite of her character in the Friday the 13th reboot. Each girl is, in their own way, a playoff of a stereotype, but in a way that is revealed to be fairly clever.

When we meet Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) the film kicks into high gear. Kristen sees brief glimpses of a monstrous looking girl, some of the girls begin disappearing while the staff refuses to say where they've gone, and Kristen keeps hearing the name "Alice Hudson" tossed around, but no one will tell her who the girl is. Or was.

I won't give away any plot details, but the film is a well-paced ghost story with characters that are certainly strong enough to carry it, and results in one of the few twists of recent years that actually makes sense. As for the direction, Carpenter is a master behind the camera and his presence is clearly felt. This IS John Carpenter's The Ward. There are long, wide, brooding shots that just ooze with his trademark style.

If there's anything that could throw this movie off, it's definitely the score, which was lacking. Carpenter has scored nearly all of his movies, though some of his best, like The Thing, had scores by others. He used to be very particular with music, but with The Ward it seemed he settled for a generic, modern horror movie score. We're treated to one of the best opening credits sequences of his career, but after that, I could have sworn there were pieces borrowed from the Friday the 13th reboot.

Score aside, this is a strong return for one of the genre's top masters. At times, it feels like it's not sure what type of movie it wants to be, but it moves along and certainly keeps the viewer engaged, and as noted above, much is explained at the end in a satisfactory way. It's not at the level of Halloween or The Thing, but I don't think anyone, including Carpenter, expected it to be. So now that after a long purgatory, the film has finally hit DVD and Blu-ray, I suggest you check it out.

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