The Ward

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of five): *** 1/2

After an absence of ten years, master director John Carpenter's new film The Ward was treated as if it were suddenly deposited in a kitty litter box. It only opened in a couple of theaters, and after disastrous reviews and poor box office, a wider release never materialized. There were cries of Carpenter being "rusty" or "in decline," similar to claims made against Hitchcock, Hawks, Welles, and Chaplin during their later years. Perhaps worse, Carpenter chose to tell a rather old-fashioned ghost story, wherein a ghost sometimes pops out from the shadows. Additionally, the script has a twist ending that further irritated his detractors.

Now The Ward is available on DVD and a wider audience can finally weigh in. One thing is clear: Carpenter is still one of the most highly skilled of all genre directors. His singular use of the widescreen frame -- developed all the way back on Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween -- is still evident, and the movie's fluidity of motion is intoxicating. It's hard to argue that the so-so material is up to his highest standards, but it can also be easily forgiven, and even enjoyed.

Amber Heard stars, looking her best with her long blond hair falling in ratty-sexy strands (she's a perfect "B" movie girl, working with a great "B" moviemaker). She's Kristen, a troubled runaway, who is caught setting fire to a house and sent to an institution. There, she meets some other young women: Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Emily (Mamie Gummer), and Zoey (Laura Leigh). Strange things begin happening, and it appears that the ghost of a former patient, Alice, is wreaking havoc. Kristen leads a couple of exciting escape attempts, and tries to find out what's going on. The suspicious Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) attempts to calm the girls, and a bunch of sour nurses and mean attendants make life generally miserable. (And, yes, there are a couple of hairy electroshock therapy scenes.)

There's definitely some kind of thrill here. Carpenter lets his camera roam the hallways in a creepy, floating fashion, revving up for Kristen's escape attempts (venturing into the hospital's improbably dingy basement, as well as into a dumbwaiter). He uses such tried-and-true tricks as the sudden blackout, punctuated by bursts of lightning that reveal a flash of... something in the corner. Sure, none of this is new, but why does everything have to be new? Where's the harm in simply taking pleasure in something done classically and well?

Basically, the American moviegoing public looks at subject matter before it ever considers artistry. Another great filmmaker, Terrence Malick, also returned this year after a long absence, and his new film The Tree of Life was greeted with enthusiasm and adoration, but mainly because it was "about" something. Carpenter's movie is "just" a horror story, so it's not really "worth" anything. But if we can argue that style is as important as substance, and that sometimes substance can outweigh style, why can't style also outweigh substance from time to time? If we can give The Ward a chance, look beyond its story, there are great cinematic pleasures to be had.

ARC Entertainment distributed the great-looking DVD and Blu-Ray; it comes with a fun Carpenter commentary track, recorded with actor Harris, as well as trailers.

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