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The Ward (2011, UK)

05/03/2011

Director: John Carpenter     Starring: Amber Heard, Lyndsy Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker

John Carpenter’s career is a bit of a mixed bag. With Halloween, The Thing and Prince of Darkness on one hand and Vampires and Ghosts Of Mars on the other it’s sometimes difficult to predict what you’re going to get when you watch one of his films. At his best, he is very, very good indeed but at his worst he is often laughably bad. With this in mind The Ward was always going to be a roll of the dice.

Kristen is the newest addition to the inmates of a secure ward in a psychiatric hospital after being arrested for burning down a farmhouse. With little in the way of memory of how she reached the farmhouse in question and no idea why she burned it down, she is subjected to “therapy” at the hands of the hospital staff. It isn’t long before Kristen realises all is not what it seems and there is something else locked in the ward with her and the other patients.

Sadly, this is a long way from Carpenter at his best, amounting to little more than a sequence of basic loud noise/sudden movement shocks linked by a a vaguely disappointing and hugely derivative story. To be fair, this is not necessarily a failing, but the delivery here was stilted and a little incoherent. The shocks are all pretty lazy. Rather than setting them up with any craft they appear to have been sprinkled in at random intervals just to keep things ticking over. Loud sound effects and fast cuts seem to be intended to eliminate the need for thoughtful timing of the scares. Unfortunately they do not.

The “vintage” sixties setting, presumably a way to justify the barbaric conditions in the psychiatric hospital, is otherwise irrelevant to the story. The hospital itself is the same old recycled attempt at One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s nest style institutional conditions. Again, this is not in itself a problem if it’s handled correctly but Carpenter fumbles this one too. It’s as if he watched Shutter Island and thought he’d have a go himself, all the while forgetting he wasn’t Martin Scorsese. Not good.

Disastrous casting has resulted in performances ranging from lacklustre to just plain terrible, something that is especially true of the woefully uncharasmatic Amber Heard as Kristen. With the success of the film pretty much dependent on Kristen perhaps it would have been prudent to cast someone who could actually carry it. The performances aren’t helped by the feeble mad-girl stereotype characters that populate the ward. Oh look, there’s a sexy nympho one and there’s one that’s regressed to being a little girl. Is there an argument that this is deliberate to support other elements of the plot? A tiny and rather pitiful one perhaps. For me it adds to the sense that this is horror-by-numbers. As for the twist, well, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say it is a marginal improvement over the film it clearly ripped off. Very marginal.

I think if it had been made by someone else, someone without Carpenter’s pedigree, I may have enjoyed it more and could have overlooked the fractured stilted editing, the boring repetitive cinematography and the general lack of originality on show. Knowing he is capable of so much more than this counts against it though and the whole thing just feels lazy and unloved. Granted, it’s not as bad as his very worst efforts but it doesn’t rise that far above them. It’s as if he is relying on the Carpenter brand to sell tickets rather than bothering to make a good film, a crime that borders on the unforgivable in my opinion.

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