More than fear, the great takeaway of The Ward is disbelief. How could the man responsible for 1982’s masterwork The Thing have it in him to churn out something so horrid as this? It’s hard to see anything of the John Carpenter of twenty-nine years ago in his latest offering, the first cinematic effort he’s made in a decade. Maybe the movie serves as an explanation of why. This is a Carpenter gone to seed, not a Carpenter capable of the sort of impeccable and intelligent presentations of horror that made his name so iconic in his heyday, and in that deterioration of one of horror’s filmmaking greats lies The Ward‘s most frightening element.
The Ward follows Kristen (Amber Heard), a troubled young woman whom we meet as she burns down a dilapidated old farmhouse at the beginning of the film. Taken to the titular ward, she’s placed under the care of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), joining a handful of other misfit young ladies in treatment; it’s a dysfunctional Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Naturally, this being a Carpenter film, the ward holds a dark secret that’s picking off our cast of characters one by one, and so Kristen takes it upon herself to uncover the truth and unveil the fiend behind the curtain, so to speak.
If that synopsis sounds utterly banal, it’s because it is. Absolutely nothing of Carpenter’s skill distinguishes The Ward as being the product of a great filmmaker– which, I think, suggests that he’s abandoned his stature– and instead, the movie ends up resembling the sort of fare relegated to a straight-to-video release. I’m not exaggerating when I say that The Ward betrays all that it’s capable of within its opening five minutes by way of a kill that’s badly orchestrated to the point of being completely perfunctory. There’s a void of tension and build-up in the sequence; it just happens, matter-of-fact and without much consideration for emotion or aftermath, and that’s more or less the trend the film continues to follow from there.
The short story here is what The Ward is a slog. Even clocking in under an hour and a half the experience of watching it feels endless. Every scare, every beat, every breath the film takes in between the seconds is an endurance test, an end product yielded by a filmmaker who very clearly has lost interest in his passion. This isn’t a case of nothing happening in a film as much as it is one of many things happening without ever mattering because the director neither cares himself nor cares to invest us in his story. To watch The Ward is to be forcibly kept at arm’s length from the film from start to finish.
It didn’t have to be this way, either. Even with an uninspired premise, Carpenter could have salvaged something spooky and creepy from the horror film flotsam. Unfortunately, he’s forgotten what it means to scare an audience and has eschewed every horror cinema talent in his repertoire in favor of terrible, ineffective jump scares. When characters peer through doorways or windows, there’s a jump scare. If a character ever finds themselves alone in a big empty room, there’s a jump scare. Morgue drawers? Jump scare. Broom closet? Jump scare. Maybe Carpenter has lost sight of how to instill fear in his viewers, but he’s certainly grown adept at exhausting them with sloppily predictable parlor tricks.
The pièce de résistance of Carpenter’s array of chicaneries, though, is easily the film’s twist ending. Very little identifies hackish filmmaking better and more accurately than cheap climactic twists that come flying out of left field and completely upend the preceding movie. With The Ward, the big surprise reveal not only feels spectacularly unearned but also makes absolutely no sense when considered against the events played out under Carpenter’s lackadaisical gaze– largely because his attempts at muddying the truth are incredibly dishonest.
And films like The Ward can’t sustain themselves on deception alone. The more apparent it becomes that Carpenter’s playing a prank on us, the more we become disengaged from his picture. In the realm of awful twist endings, The Ward might be able to go toe-to-toe with High Tension, though the latter film still has merit as a slasher leading up to Aja’s regrettable third act choices; The Ward can’t even claim to be a functioning movie before it begins sliding down the home stretch. Maybe– maybe— some choice grue and a greater economy of well-executed scares could have given The Ward enough meat to satiate an audience, but it can’t even offer the two things that horror films are expected to have.
Carpenter’s not entirely alone in this fiasco– his cadre of actresses seem as disinterested in the proceedings as he, listlessly “acting” their way through scene after boring scene– but the bulk of the blame can be placed squarely on his shoulders. The Ward leaves us with too many questions, none of which pertain to the narrative or plot but rather to the thought put into the whole production. How did Carpenter fall this far? Where did his vision go? Forget Carpenter, how could any semi-competent director put their final stamp of approval on a film that’s so objectively dreckish as this? Can Carpenter even make films anymore? And with The Ward under his belt…do we even want him to?