Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 15, 2010 as a Toronto International Film Festival review.
Well, it looks like John Carpenter has made his first unintentional comedy. I just can’t take horror seriously when the killer is chasing our victim around and it instantly reminds me of an old episode of Punky Brewster. Remember when she played hide-and-seek and got locked in the refrigerator (teaching us children never to hide in the ice box)? THE WARD has a morgue scene very similar to this and I couldn’t help but laugh. If you know Carpenter’s work, you’re probably sighing right now and I’m sorry. My heart is hurting with you.
Here’s the set up, which looks fun, seeing as who’s behind it: Kristen (Amber Heard) sets a house on fire and gets taken to a psychiatric hospital. Joining her are four other girls (Lyndsy Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker, Mika Boorem, and Mamie Gummer) who all suffer from a term one would usually call an ex-lover - “crazy.” One by one, these girls start to mysteriously disappear, so Kristen takes it upon herself to uncover the dark truth behind the disappearances. Cue the “dum dum dum” music.
Here’s the first of many flaws with THE WARD: none of the girls look or act crazy. This is the most important detail in a film that takes place in the looney bin. If I’m in the mental ward, it’s because I’m dangerous as hell and society would hate life if I was to be let loose. These girls don’t just act normal, they talk normal (no cocked head, dripping spit here), and we don’t know any of their history other than they’re “just crazy.” Our ward staff acts more nuts than the girls do. Give me visuals or stories, I need to know not to trust any of them with my mother.
The sickest thing about THE WARD is this: Carpenter might be edging toward slightly perverted in his growing age. There’s a 2-3 minute shower scene with our five main characters. Some might say this is a throwback back to the old slasher films when gratuitous and unnecessary nudity was a must, but here’s the kicker: all we see is their backs (over and over, I must add) and a silhouette of side boob. The camera just goes side to side, back to back. I seriously love Carpenter just as much as the next person, but this scene is creepy.
What THE WARD ends up getting plagued with is cheap scares and cheaper effects. When Kristen is the last one out of the shower, we see an outline of a ghost behind her. The loud music booms as a skeleton-like hand grabs her by the neck. This is the oldest trick in the book, and it has worked brilliantly in the past, but here it’s just irritating. Our ghost isn’t terrifying and actually looks quite silly. The confusing part is that effects master Greg Nicotero worked on this. One great director and one great special effects creator can’t seem to thrill me for once, and I’m scratching my head.
This marks Carpenter’s first feature in seven years. The man has made classics, with films like HALLOWEEN and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but THE WARD just adds rust to the nail I call his recent career as a director. THE WARD is just bad. Don’t be surprised if this ends up straight-to-cable.
P.S. I still love you, John.