Is There Food?

by Daniel Woolstencroft

John Carpenter’s The Ward

John Carpenter and me go way back. Further back than any other horror director. As my dad is fond of reminding me, when I was very, very small I watched The Thing (or parts of it) on TV. I don’t remember it, my long term memory is pretty useless at the best of times, but from that day Carpenter and I were close through most of my youth.

Halloween was a favourite of both my sister and mine ever since we were old enough to be allowed to watch it. Come to think of it, probably slightly before. They Live was on constant rotation in my teenage years. In The Mouth of Madness cemented an interest in Lovecraft. The Thing would these days rate incredibly highly in my all time list of favourite films, and those golden age Carpenter films will always have a place in my heart.

But then it seems in my adult life, Carpenter has gone badly off the boil. It’s not just him - Argento and Romero suffered the same fate. Past glories dancing out of reach for all of them. But it’s Carpenter, really, that my teenage self would really like to see bounce back. Vampires, Ghosts of Mars, Children of the Damned. They’re all massively below par for someone who has been described as a master of the horror genre.

Which brings us nicely to The Ward. Sorry, “John Carpenter’s The Ward”, to give it the full title treatment. I bloody hope Carpenter isn’t so proud of what he’s done here that he insists on adding his name to the title. But then, Alan Smithee’s The Ward doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Maybe suggesting that Carpenter attribute this to that famous alias man is a bit strong, but the more shit that the guy makes, the more distant that memory of Kurt Russel and Keith David seems.

The Ward involves a haunted psychiatric institute (situated in the US town of North Bend, prompting bad “round the bend” jokes to worm their way into my head every time we see the sign, which is a lot). The titular ward refers to a specially closed off area of the hospital, within which reside several teenage female stereotypes, and a homicidal phantom. All presided over by the sneering hospital staff.

Amber Heard arrives at North Bend’s finest within a few minutes of the film’s start (right after she burns down a building mysteriously) so we’re given precious little time to build up any kind of relationship before we being asked to give a shit about her. And I’d be willing to bet you probably won’t. But, before you can say “where’s she getting all that makeup in a loony bin” young Amber is off sticking her nose in, trying to work out why the asylum’s resident spook is bumping off inmates. Oh, and trying to escape. There is just so much mystery here, Scooby. And the film really wants you to know that.

In order to inject The Ward with all manner of classic terror and atmosphere, Carpenter reaches into his bag of cinematic horror tricks and produces…very little. It seems that his only two remaining cinematic horror techniques are 1) something I like to call “quiet, quiet, quiet, LOUD NOISE!” while 2) is “look over there, look over there, FOOLED YOU; SCARY’S OVER HERE!”. These “tricks” are used over and over, and you can predict when the latter is going to happen with almost surgical precision. Whenever it looks like something creepy is about to happen and the camera goes wandering off to the left of a character’s perspective, you can be almost certain old ghost face will pop up on the right, just after we centre back on the original camera position.

It’s embarrassing to see Carpenter falling back on such cliched horror tropes when he was capable of such subtlety and greatness back in his day. I always used to consider Carpenter the master of things happening in the background. Those things you thought you saw, but that might never have been there. All of which makes the use of loud noises to elicit jumps and scares incredibly juvenile and lazy for a “master”.

For some bizarre reason, the film finds itself set in the 60s, and I can’t quite work out why. It elicits a kind of Shutter Island-lite vibe that distracts more than it enhances. Amber’s stylish 60’s jeans, for example, or the way the girls decide to bust out some funky period moves when someone activates a record player (one of the film’s more horrific moments, actually).

Proceedings aren’t helped by a pretty terrible script. At one point, during an escape attempt, after narrowly avoiding an orderly, one of the girls says something like “He’s really angry”. If it’s an attempt at humour, it falls way short, and is probably the only time the film cracks a smile - it takes itself incredibly seriously. If it’s not, well…

There’s a soundtrack that sounds like one of those cheap cover albums trying to do Suspiria, all tinkly and mysterious but very, very shit. At least if Carpenter and Howarth did the soundtracks for these films then there might be something to enjoy.But surely there are some decent kills, right?

Wrong. Despite the involvement of gore maestros Berger and Nicotero, there are only a handful of actual kills, and none of them are original or well done. There’s not a great deal of gore at all on offer really. Admittedly Carpenter has never really been about explicit gore, but you’d expect something more imaginative than what’s on offer here. All the kills are carried out by an antagonist that’s so over exposed in the final reel that it starts to look completely rubbish. There’s also a physicality to the thing later in the film that becomes almost laughable. Finally, there’s an ending that will leave you cursing the last 90 minutes and wishing John Carpenter had retired a long time ago. I’m not going to spoil it here, but I hated it. It actually made me feel worse about the rest of the film, which is perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film.

If this really is the best that the once great director can manage, then he needs to stop embarrassing himself. I’d love to know whether he thinks this is some noble mystery tale that needs to be told, or some classic horror- mongering that deserves to be seen. Because, despite wanting to recapture the brilliant Carpenter moments of my youth, The Ward is nothing more than tired, unimaginative, straight-to-dvd horror. And there’s quite enough of that already.

I do look forward to the sequel though. It’s about an ex-TV superhero who is haunted by visions of Adam West. I don’t know about you, but I think “John Carpenter’s Burt Ward” could be amazing.