John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010) is something of a minor masterpiece, or at least a minor great film.
To a degree almost apologetic, what vocal minority there was who approved this film did so by calling it traditional, while the majority of critics and filmgoers dismissed it as tired and cliché. The latter sentiment is not hard to understand. No doubt, scenes of lurking, undead menace, teenage girl murder and various jump-scares feel as if they’ve been trucked in from the stock warehouse of horror cinema from the past 30 years-plus, while the similar themed psychological thriller Shutter Island had already recently stole much of the thunder on the idea of a split/multiple personality twist reveal. However, these aforesaid gimmicks of the film shouldn’t be considered its main draw; they are but a formality. The devil is in the details, as they say, and while The Ward never breaks new grounds in the horror genre, it nonetheless stakes a few acres of unclaimed territory in how its garden-variety premise is appropriated and ultimately subverted. Horror as a whole is a convention almost by necessity, and Carpenter’s gift has always been his ability to do something unique, something exclusive, within such an envelope precisely because he remains a thematic storyteller with a classical approach to onscreen artistry. Like all of his films, the key to really appreciating The Ward is rather simple: watch it again.
Madness is truly terrifying because it is real. Ghosts are not real. There are no haunted houses; no such thing as vampires or witches or werewolves or demonic possession etc. It’s all bullshit. Great for entertaining fiction, but bullshit. Yet, for all intents and purposes, madness of the mind is supernatural, or can pretty damn well evoke a similar effect. A real life person subject to insanity experiences the irrational, the unexplainable, in much the same way a scripted sane character would in your typical horror film. The Ward opens with this state of psychosis creeping about its edges. The nighttime establishing shot of a psychiatric hospital cuts to various empty hallways and corridors of its interior, and immediately there can be heard faint sounds of some inhuman growling or snarling emanating from somewhere nearby, perhaps behind the camera or not too far around some unseen corner. Right away the audience is experiencing what terrors the human mind is capable of. The sequence then finds its way inside a cell where a young girl cowers in fear before being snatched up and strangled to her death by a gruesome figure in the shadows, the first of many schlocky tropes involving said assailant that are actually clever in how they spin the film’s central conceit.
What follows is a rather nifty opening credits that montages a history of mental disorder with shattered glass imagery, and where composer Mark Kilian introduces his main orchestral theme involving chilly female vocals that wonderfully appropriates the "Carpenter sound" while still maintaining its own musical identity, not unlike Morricone’s contribution to The Thing. He follows up with an alternate, recurring motif of a childlike lullaby that echoes throughout the next scene leading into the film’s first act, one that depicts sunbaked rolling hills and a highway stretch of rural North Bend, Oregon, circa 1966, as a tattered Amber Heard darts through brown, dry, wooded areas, eluding a roaming police car and making her way to an abandoned farmhouse; feverish and distressed, she sets the farmhouse ablaze and falls to her knees before the cops show up and haul her away.
For Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese envisioned his asylum with strong, gothic overtones, as did Darren Arnofsky with his various urban settings in Black Swan (also released the same year), albeit modernized. Both directors displayed a considerable degree of influence via European cinema in how they hyper-stylized the psycho-traumatic descents of their respective protagonists: Scorsese, warping his surreal visuals in painterly slo-mo coupled with staccato assaults on the senses; Arnofsky, utilizing a grainy, handheld, 16mm vérité aesthetic for a near constant over-the-shoulder POV. In roughly the first 7 minutes of The Ward, however, and with scarce dialogue, Carpenter reframes from excessive style, opting instead for his signature low-key tone of unease: hypnotic opening credits that give way to a weirdly tinted countryside, which in turn conveys a subtle unreality even beyond the titular ward, accompanying our heroine, Kristen (Heard), no matter where she goes, and is the last time we see any other place on screen. Even the psychiatric hospital itself is less foreboding than it is merely clinical. This marks a similar vibe that goes all the way back to Halloween, where Carpenter feigns an unassuming normality of idyllic America as something to pervert with cold atmosphere.
Carpenter provides no answers but he does end the film with his trademark closing 'sting' shot where Kristen, reduced to pure fury, attacks an unsuspecting Alice from behind a bathroom sink mirror. Justified or not, she aims to prove herself Darwinian champion of the mind.
With each viewing I’ve since become increasingly enamored with The Ward. It features a lean but astute script, ripe with penetrating themes, from Michael & Shawn Rasmussen, and each of the female cast members bring distinctive traits to their characters, even if those traits are only surface-level, while Harris plays his role with just the right degree of ambiguity. All of the performances are rather thankless, really. But then, so is the movie as a whole, continuing the modest transparency of John Carpenter’s filmmaking craft. I can think of few other directors who are as consummate yet equally unassuming.