While I am one the biggest Ghosts of Mars fan on the planet, I think that John Carpenter’s latest film The Ward may very well be his best work in more than twenty years. Carpenter’s first feature-length film since Ghosts of Mars a decade ago might not be as ambitious as his In the Mouth of Madness (1993) or as exciting as his Vampires (1996) but he hasn’t delivered a work directed quite as beautifully directed since They Live, his sadly undervalued masterpiece from 1988.
Set in the mid-sixties and starring the fascinating young actress Amber Heard (finally an ‘it’ girl with some real chops) as Kristen, a troubled girl who ends up in an all-female wing of a mental hospital after burning down a farm house for no apparent reason, The Ward is a smart and sneaky fright-film from the pen of Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, a young writing and directing team responsible for 2005’s Long Distance. While there isn't anything particularly original about the script and the film's ending is perhaps a little too transparent, The Ward is a real filmmaker's film as Carpenter's skill behind the camera easily makes up for any pedestrian moments the plot suffers from.
While Carpenter's direction controls the film, The Ward is a production overflowing with talent in fron of and behind the camera. With its splendid supporting cast, including Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsay Fonseca and the always great Jared Harris, lively score courtesy of Mark Kilian (sitting in for Carpenter who opted out of providing the music for this one), and eerie photography by talented cinematographer Yaron Orbach (a man not usually associated with horror films), The Ward is an extremely well-rendered film that is so much more successful as a true fright-film than any other released in 2011.
Even though Amber Heard is absolutely terrific as the lead, the real star of The Ward is indeed Carpenter’s direction, which is at its confident and controlled best. When I met John Carpenter a few years back, around the time he had finished up working on his Masters of Horror episodes, about the last thing he seemed interested in was directing another feature so to see him come back with a work so polished, muscular and beautifully finessed is a really fabulous. The Ward is also incredibly contemporary feeling and outside of a marvelous visual and musical cue inspired by Halloween this is not at all Carpenter in summation mode…this is the man firing on all cylinders again and the news that he is preppy another film is extremely welcome.
Like most of John Carpenter’s great films, The Ward was released to a mostly hostile critical reception earlier this year and sadly it didn’t even have a chance to become a popular success as its time in theaters was limited at best. Pity, as this is a wonderfully elegant and well-made horror film overflowing with style. Watching this I kept saying to myself, 'This is how you do it…this is how its done', and I felt truly privileged to watch a new film by of our great American masters, who has been out of sight far too long.
The Ward looks fabulous on both DVD and Blu-ray but sadly it has arrived with only extra, an enjoyable audio commentary track from Carpenter and Jared Harris. While many have gone out of their way to trash The Ward, I found this to be quite a return to form for the great Carpenter even if it finally doesn't rank among his very best, as it doesn't have the transformative power of Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Escape From New York or Christine. I am confident that time will catch up with The Ward though and it will eventually be viewed as quite a special little-film from one of our great American auteurs.