In theaters and on video on demand
“The Ward,” written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen, directed by John Carpenter, 89 minutes, rated R.
In a world so wrought with horror filmmakers going to unnecessary extremes just to get a cheap rise out of some teenagers texting, it’s encouraging to see John Carpenter return with a new feature film, “The Ward.”
“Halloween” meets “The Twilight Zone,” “The Ward” opens with a murder followed by a mystery: Who is this young woman running from the authorities? Why is she burning down a farmhouse? All in good time.
The girl is Kristen (a spirited Amber Heard), and her motives will remain unknown for now. The police haul her off to North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, run by the highly experimental Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris). It’s the 1960s, and “experimental” is code for “electroshock treatment.”
Kristen meets her new housemates, each one with a distinct personality: The best friend (Mammie Gummer), the tattletale (Danielle Panabaker), the artist (Lyndsy Fonseca) and one who just acts like a toddler (Laura-Leigh). They’re all reeling from the recent disappearance of a patient, which the staff at North Bend refuses to acknowledge.
But the girls know the staff can’t be trusted. The institution is haunted by the ghost of a former patient, Alice, and when the lights go out, she stalks to halls of the ward looking to pick off the girls one-by-one.
The strong-willed Kristen, assuming the role of the leader, knows the only solution is to escape from North Bend.
On display here are some of the time-tested techniques that earned Carpenter his Master of Horror title – namely manipulating the foreground and background in a way that keeps his audience alert, and tossing his characters into tight spaces with who knows what, playing with that little claustrophobic side in all of us.
About that claustrophobia. Carpenter, along with writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, masterfully create a Russian doll out of North Bend: Within the inescapable institution is the ward, within the ward are the cells. And then there are closets and dumbwaiters, and the haunted quarters become more and more cramped as the film progresses.
All of that pales in comparison to the mental shackles that imprison these five young women, and it’s something that Carpenter and the Rasmussens never forget.
Unfortunately, audiences have become numb to Hollywood’s electroshock treatment of seven “Saw” movies, two installments of “Paranormal Activity,” “The Human Centipede” and countless cheap imitations of Carpenter’s immortal “Halloween.” In this era desensitized to the genre, it’s doubtful that anyone will lose sleep after watching “The Ward.”
It’s a pity, because in the 1970s “The Ward” might have gone into film history as another Carpenter classic. In 2011, it’s still pretty damn good.
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