Once upon a time, a filmmaker named John Carpenter directed a string of creative entries in the horror, sci-fi and action genres. Some of these proved to be highly influential (Halloween, The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13), while many have at least gained a notable cult status (Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live). Bar one film or two, Carpenter maintained a rather enviable streak of success until the 1990s, a decade in which he dabbled in ill-advised sequels (Escape from L.A.), terrible remakes (Village of the Damned), and a Chevy Chase romantic comedy about an invisible man. Excluding some TV work, The Ward marks Carpenter’s first foray into directing since 2001’s woeful Ghosts of Mars. While this new effort certainly isn’t near the quality of some of the lowest points of the man’s career, it’s unfortunately nothing close to a return to form.
The Ward’s biggest problem is that it’s completely devoid of tension. The various twists and turns of the asylum-set story, as well as the various character traits on display, are over-familiar in horror cinema, but this would be forgivable if they were delivered in an exciting fashion. As it is, Carpenter’s trademark wit is missing, the film is dull from a visual standpoint, and the whole thing is over-reliant on ineffective jump-scares. Such a technique can be genuinely scary when the “jump” comes from an unexpected but plausible place: see the tunnel sequence in Alien, or the kitchen murder in Carpenter’s own Halloween. The Ward’s jump scares all involve cutting to reveal the film’s ghostly villain – whose rubbery face effects lend her the unfortunate look of a Scooby-Doo criminal – lurking behind one of the girls, seemingly just teleporting into rooms in some cases. You’re likely to jump out of sheer force, but the lingering effect is one of humour rather than terror.
One of the film’s few good aspects is the actually occasionally spooky score written by Carpenter himself, perhaps in an attempt to channel earlier films of his in which he did so, and the opening title sequence based around imagery of shattering glass has a unique beauty to it. There’s also a little fun to be had with character actor and recent Mad Men star Jared Harris’ performance as the girls’ doctor, in which he almost seems to be channelling Donald Pleasance’s iconic appearance in Halloween. It’s a shame more of these influences from Carpenter’s better films couldn’t find their way into this.