It must be hard to be a director like John Carpenter. When you create such classics as Halloween, The Thing and Escape from New York within four years, any subsequent films will never apparently measure up. And his new film The Ward, does not, but it is still a solid old-school horror film with plenty of scares and a twist that is only obvious after the fact.
Amber Heard stars as Kristen, a young girl found in a state of hysterics after she has burned down an abandoned farmhouse. She is taken to the local hospital and put in the mental ward. There reside four other girls: Iris, the artist; Zoë, the mental child; Sarah, the flirt; and Emily, the mean one. They are presided over by a Nurse who seems an extra from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and their treatment is in the hands of the kindly and intelligent English doctor (Jared Harris). Kristen discovers that the other girls are all frightened of the ghost of Alice; but apparently she isn’t a ghost, and they have good reason to be scared. So all the pieces of the puzzle for a 70’s style horror film where the girls are trapped but one of them is clever enough to possibly outsmart the evil.
Unfortunately the weak part of the film is the actors. With this kind of film comes a certain style of acting; unfortunately the actors playing the girls think they have to pump up the fear factor and overdramatize every tilt of their head to match the heightened emotional state. In fact, the opposite would be far more effective. Heard speaks each line with such a serious earnestness that attempts to portray genuine fear, but is out of place. All the actors seems to be behaving the way that they have heard actors in 70s horror movies act, or seen in parodies, as oppose to actually watching and studying the style. Luckily Harris is there; yes, he is the stereotypical English doctor (listen to his accent – he must be smart!) But he pulls off a naturality that the girls lack. It is that naturality that is necessary for the audience to relax and be scared. And there were plenty of scares; yes, it has the typical lead-in music, and yes, the audience knows it’s coming, but I jumped in my seat every time. The audience frequently reacted out loud to moments they knew were coming, when one character or another would be getting killed.
The problem with Carpenter is that in so many ways he is too good for this kind of material. No one has mastered it better than he has, and while he certainly doesn’t “phone it in”, so to speak, this kind of film doesn’t present enough of a challenge for him. The Ward is not fantastic, but it is not terrible. It is a throwback to his earlier horror films with some good scares, and a predictability that is perhaps enjoyable.