Long after the 8-track went the way of the dodo, master of horror John Carpenter was still plying his uniquely expressive analog style—and proudly so. In a seminal piece on the director published in Film Comment, Kent Jones wrote, “Whether we like it or not, we attune ourselves to norms and paradigms in filmmaking as they shift like tectonic plates, making unconscious adjustments in our heads about how to watch films and see them in relation to one another.” That describes how we engage with movies across time, but it also elucidates Carpenter’s reliable mode of filmmaking; the vintage artistry of something like Vampires suggests an unconscious stubbornness on Carpenter’s part to make allowances for fashion. But with The Ward, his first feature since 2001’s Ghosts on Mars, the director seems to cry, “Uncle!”
Many Carpenter films are genre jambalayas, mishmashes of horror and sci-fi with the feel of westerns; the director’s old-fashioned style gives even his future visions the sensation of something having been unburied from a distant past. But The Ward is a straightforward psychological spooker, about a series of murders inside a mental institution, and outside a few striking widescreen compositions, you wouldn’t even know Carpenter was responsible for it. The clothes, art direction, and bizarre programming transmitted through the boob tube in the ward’s common area all suggest the story takes place in the time of June Cleaver, but the frenzied camera (there’s probably more movement in the film’s 90 minutes than there is in the entirety of the director’s oeuvre) and Vaseline-slick rustedness of the color palette gives one the feeling of hanging out inside James Wan’s temporal lobe.
But, to be fair, The Ward is closer in spirit to Insidious than Dead Silence. Arriving at the film’s mental institution after setting fire to a house, Kristen (Amber Heard) comes to share a ward with a half dozen Brittany Murphys who remain mum about why she’s being terrorized by a ghoulie that may or may not have gotten rid of several others before her (the Nurse Ratched-type that supervises the ward will tell you they’ve been discharged). Both Carpenter and the film’s writers, through a canny use of space and silence that emphasizes the loneliness of Kristen’s crisis (only after she tries to escape the hospital does one see that there’s life beyond her ward), convey the desperation of what it must be like to have to justify one’s seemingly legit mental illness to someone who’s sane.
So, points for humaneness, I guess, but is The Ward scary? Not really. Unlike Insidious, its ostentatious sense of horror—think later-day Argento—is far from suggestive, though some of its queasier moments effectively tap into our fears of not-so-bygone forms of invasive physical therapy. But more important than these few grisly set pieces is the last-act revelation, which, though you may see it coming as soon as Kristen is oppressively bombarded by the sheer motley-ness of her fellow wardmates, is consistent with the prevailing oldness of the story. Pity, though, that Carpenter chose to direct as Disco Stu, as the look of The Ward suggests a lame dad trying to get with the times. Of course, given the nature of the film’s climax, is it possible that Carpenter doesn’t even know he is—let alone was—anymore? Now that’s scary.