Saturday, August 20, 2011

John Carpenter’s The Ward

To be young and crazy in the 1960’s only meant one thing. Prepare yourself for some generous helpings of electro-shock treatment. Unfortunately, the beautiful and institutionalized Kristen has even greater problems in John Carpenter’s The Ward (trailer here), which is now available on DVD.

After burning down a remote farmhouse while mysteriously decked out in her night-gown, Kristen is delivered into the care of Dr. Stringer. He does not seem like a bad fellow, but his nurse is evidently still out of sorts from all the trouble she had with that McMurphy character. Yet, despite their aggressive battery of pharmaceuticals, Kristen is often left unattended with the other four young women in her ward.

Iris, an artist, is initially the most welcoming of the group. Emily is the assertive one, often assuming the role of protector for Zoey, who seems to suffer from an acute case of arrested development. Conversely, Sarah, the catty sexpot, specializes in generating bad vibes. It would all be like a CW show in an insane asylum, except that the spirit of a former patient is apparently trying to kill them all.

Just about every horror movie fan wants the new John Carpenter film to be a triumphant return to form. As a result, there is a temptation to forgive a lot in The Ward. Truthfully though, it is just a serviceable genre picture, at best, that relies far too heavily on scares derived from stuff sneaking up behind character and going boo, rather than genuinely tapping into the fear of the unknown. Even the spooky old nut house is not all that memorable, particularly when compared to that of the Vicious Brothers’ Grave Encounters.

To its credit, the cast is fairly game. Though not a scream queen in the Carpenter-Jaime Lee Curtis tradition, Amber Heard is quite credible as the take-charge Kristen, which is essential given where the film is headed. Jared Harris is not exactly Peter Cushing either, but he is still pretty good as Dr. Stringer, projecting an ethically ambiguous erudition appropriate to the genre.

Though it is reasonably well executed, the big twist might frustrate genre fans as well, because we have seen it before in films of relatively recent vintage. (Here’s a hint: in one such movie Alfred Molina played the head-shrinker.) However, the biggest disappointment of The Ward is the absence of that unquantifiable but instantly recognizable eerie atmosphere that permeates the classic Carpenter canon. Judged on its own merits, The Ward is a mediocre to sort-of okay b-movie, with some featured performances arguably exceeding the industry standard. Yet compared to They Live, The Thing, the original Halloween, and even Prince of Darkness, it is rather watery beer, but fans can still check it on DVD, now available from Arc Entertainment.