The Ward – or John Carpenter’s The Ward, to give it its full and proper title – is a film I’ve been pining to see for what must be the best part of a year, ever since I heard it had gone into production. Carpenter has long been one of my favourite directors. I’ve been enjoying his films since I was 14 years old, at the height of the home-video boom. Long before I even knew what a director did, Carpenter’s name in the opening credits of a movie assured me that I was in for a good time.
Fast-forward 27 years, and here I am, sitting on a train heading for London’s West End. Destination: the Empire, Leicester Square, where The Ward, Carpenter’s first theatrical release in a decade, is playing its opening weekend. I’ve avoided seeing any trailers, and I deliberately haven’t read any synopses or reviews. I want to have no expectations; I want the film to surprise me. When I’m at the cinema, I like to feel like I’m sitting in the front car of a white-knuckle ride. It’s more fun than climbing in the back and slipping on someone else’s vomit… er, so to speak.
As I settle into my train journey, I flick through a newspaper, in which I spy an advert for The Ward. ‘Oh, that’s a good sign,’ I think, swiftly followed by, ‘Oh, thanks for that, you muppet’. One of the press quotes in the ad tells me more about the film than I want to know. I feel the weight of expectation creeping on to my shoulder – or has it, in fact, been there all the time and I’ve just not noticed? I might have avoided reading anything of substance about the film, but I have seen its IMDb score: a respectable 7.2, from a couple of hundred votes. I know I’m kidding myself – the snowball is already rolling.
The Ward begins in 1966 with a freshly institutionalised young woman, Kristen (played by Amber Heard), arriving at a hospital, her memory fogged. Her first night on the ward is disturbed by the presence of something in her cell. What this something is, and why it’s visiting the inmates, are the story’s central mysteries.
After an intriguing opening sequence, some atmospheric credits – oh, it’s good to see that familiar Carpenter font once again – and an establishing shot of the hospital that, with a single camera move, tells me exactly who directed this thing, I start to suspect that I am indeed about to witness something quite special. The Ward certainly has many impressive attributes. It’s well shot; it’s edited in a pleasingly old-school manner, allowing the viewer to actually see what’s going on (remember when most films did this as standard?); and it has a haunting, memorable and at times Carpenter-esque score by Mark Kilian that also riffs rather wonderfully on Suspiria (something that Carpenter’s own score for Vampires does, though it works even better here).
However, beauty isn’t everything, and generally speaking I find the film hard to warm to. Firstly, the script, by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, feels perfunctory; it never really shines. Granted, The Ward is a straight horror film – nobly, despite its 15 certificate and young female cast, it doesn’t pepper its dialogue with hip, knowing zingers – but it doesn’t serve up anything interesting enough to really draw me into its characters. It’s easy to watch, sure, and it’s not boring, but it’s missing some crackle, something to at least get me rooting for its central turn, something to make me care about the mystery of the ward.
As for the scares, well, they rarely feel as if they’ve been earned; most are of the jumpy kind – ie, the audio goes quiet for a few seconds before something pops into frame, accompanied by a loud stab of ‘boo!’ on the soundtrack. It’s a technique that can work wonders – indeed, over the years, Carpenter has worked wonders with it – but here it feels rather tired. What The Ward doesn’t do is unsettle me or get under my skin in the manner of Prince Of Darkness, In The Mouth Of Madness or even Cigarette Burns, which is a shame, and surprising given its ghostly trappings.
Still, I find it hard to write off The Ward, perhaps because its denouement leaves me feeling as if I’d enjoyed the preceding 80 minutes more than I thought I had: a neat trick. Whether or not this experience will translate into a deeper appreciation of the film as a whole on subsequent viewings remains to be seen – right now, I can’t think of another movie that’s only really grabbed me right at the end – but suffice to say as a Carpenter completist I’ll be revisiting The Ward on Blu-ray later this year. “Nurse! The (42-inch) screens!”