By Sumaya Samarasinghe
Ten years after directing his last feature film Ghost of Mars, which was both a critical and commercial disaster, cult director John Carpenter is once again back behind the camera.
His latest film The Ward takes place in 1966 at the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital and begins with the gruesome death of a young patient named Tammy. Some unseen force seems to enter her cell and the next thing we hear is her neck snapping.
In the morning,a bruised and beautiful young blonde woman is running through a forest with a police car trailing her. She finds herself in front of an abandoned farmhouse and burns it down. The police catch her and take her to North Bend.
Her name is Kristen; she is troubled and suffers from amnesia. The young woman is institutionalised and is roughly led to a special ward by an orderly. There she is given Tammy’s old room and meets the other patients; Iris the artist who does her best to befriend her, Sarah who keeps trying to seduce the male staff members, Zoey the youngest who behaves like a child and keeps hugging a toy bunny and Emily who initially seems hostile but ends up being Kristen’s closest ally.
On the first night itself, Kristen’s blanket is pulled off her bed and when she wakes up to look for it, she finds a broken charm bracelet hidden under her mattress.
At her first therapy session with Dr. Stringer it becomes very clear that Kristen has absolutely no idea as to why she has been institutionalised. She and the other girls seem to have no family members nor friends visiting them, plus as the film goes along we are not offered any clues regarding their illnesses.
From time to time, flashback sequences which are in black and white show a terrified little girl chained from her wrists inside a barn watching a man who is obviously going to abuse her come in.
As the film goes along, the inmates are attacked by a horribly disfigured and burnt creature who also watches Kristen while she is sleeping.
The Ward is no masterpiece and does not fall into the same category as Shutter Island by Martin Scorcese or Milos Formas’ fabulous One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
But is does have a touch of class, thanks to the skill of its veteran director. Firstly, and unlike most of the new horror genre, Carpenter does not believe in the over usage of gore and builds up suspense rather well. A few shocks and jumps in your seat are guaranteed and it takes a master’s touch to achieve this when most of the story takes place in one location.
And secondly, the film is more like an homage to films shot in the 1960’s from its colour schemes, camera movements and no heads rolling or blood pouring. Amber Heard who plays Kristen looks like a young Grace Kelly or Kim Novak. Though the young actress is still relatively unknown to many filmgoers, give her another two years maximum and she will be having a serious fan club to deal with not only because of her looks but also the versatility of her acting talent.
The name Alice Hudson, also a former patient of the ward keeps being brought up and Kristen will continue to stubbornly try and escape and find out what has become of her missing friends.
Critiques have said that The Ward is a little obvious with a denouement which could be foreseen a mile away.
I would tend to disagree. Though the ending may seem easy, John Carpenter manages to brightly deviate the viewers attention from unanswered questions (Why have the girls been institutionalised? Where are their parents) and makes then want to continue watching the film upto its very end.
Not the best John Carpenter to whom we owe Halloween and Starman only to name a few of his most famous movies, nor the best film about mental illness;The Ward is leagues away from Shock Corridor, One flew over the cuckoo’s nest and even Shutter Island, However, it would be a shame to deny oneself an entertaining, scary movie which does not end in the “oh so common” bloodbath of the slasher genre.