After a triple whammy of major disappointments with his last three movies, Escape From LA, Vampires and Ghosts Of Mars, cult director John Carpenter has spent the last decade well and truly out of the limelight. As a result of this extended sojourn expectations for his latest project were obviously high with many questioning had the once great director of true cinema classics such as Halloween, Escape From New York and The Thing lost his edge? A step in the right direction was the casting of scream queen of the moment Amber Heard as his leading lady for his latest film The Ward, released on Blu-ray and DVD today, but is this the return to form that everyone was hoping for?
When an old farmhouse is set ablaze by Kristen (Amber Heard), a distraught young woman, she is taken by police to the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital. She awakens in a special ward with four similarly unbalanced and wayward girls: Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), a flirty and sass-talking know it all; Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), a sensitive and talented artist who tries to make her feel welcome; Emily (Mamie Gummer), a reckless but playful outcast; and Zoey (Laura-Leigh), who hides behind a childlike persona and her beloved stuffed bunny.
Kirsten’s therapist, Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), tries to uncover the root cause of her breakdown, but despite his calm and understanding manner, she resists any attempts at help and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the hospital is not the sanctuary it seems to be. Kristen begins to have strange run-ins with a shadowy phantom who roams the halls when the ward is locked down at night. Persistent and inquisitive, she goes digging for information about former patients and soon becomes convinced that no one ever leaves the ward alive.
With it’s sixties setting the film is clearly influenced by director Samuel Fuller’s asylum set 1963 cult favourite Shock Corridor which in turn also provided inspiration to Martin Scorsese’s similarly themed Shutter Island. The attention to period detail within the mental hospital setting is exquisitely handled from the antiquated medical equipment to the blandness of the patient lounge. By confining the film to the walls of the hospital ward Carpenter returns to his low budget roots and proves beyond a doubt that his work is much more effective with a back to basics approach.
Carpenter’s directorial style is in evidence throughout the film but nowhere more so than in the cinematography which sees the camera glide through the eerie corridors in a series of intricately detailed shots evoking a similar atmosphere to some of his greatest works Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter really knows where to place the camera to gain the most tension from a scene as well as setting up really effective jumps and scares further enhanced by the Carpenteresque score provided by composer Mark Kilian.
The young cast of locked-up bad girls are all very good and really get their teeth into the characters even if it does feel like Girl Interrupted in a haunted house. Danielle Panabaker from TV’s Shark and last year’s remake of The Crazies is particularly good as the antagonistic Sarah. Her feisty attitude combined with a subtle vulnerability brings to mind a young Winona Ryder. Amber Heard, who seems to be making a name for herself in budget horror movies, brings to the lead role a sense of level-headedness usually lacking in this type of film and provides the kind of strong female lead that Jamie Lee Curtis would have played had the film been made 30 years ago. Jared Harris, son of Richard, also puts in a memorable performance as the ward’s enigmatic psychoanalyst who may or may not hold the key to the hospital’s strange goings on.
After all the good old fashioned atmospheric tension, jumps and scares the film hits its biggest stumbling block in the final 20 minutes with a twist ending that totally devalues all that has gone before with a clichéd and frankly lazy storytelling tactic. It is such a shame because with the right ending this could have been a truly great horror film but instead, writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, have opted to end the film in such a way as to lead to major disappointment rather than surprise. Even a final, rather obvious scare is not enough to take away the underwhelming feeling left at the end of the movie.
So while The Ward marks a welcome return to the director’s chair for Carpenter it is not quite the return to form that we may have hoped for. For the most part, the film is a highly effective piece of filmmaking drawing tension and scares from the eerie location with some stand-out turns from those involved however thanks to a poorly executed and lazy ending the film falters at the last hurdle. That being said however, it is still probably the best film he has made since They Live in 1988 and I would much rather Carpenter be making half-decent films than not making films at all.
The Ward was originally scheduled for release earlier this year but when it was discovered that the discs had been mastered with the wrong aspect ratio the film was pulled and re-scheduled for an October release, which actually makes a lot more sense from a marketing point of view but it also highlights the fact that the studio was sensible enough not to release an inferior version particularly as Carpenter is extremely considerate about the framing of shots and the mise-en-scene of his films.
With the picture presented in the correct ratio of 2.35:1 with a 1080p transfer the picture quality is excellent with a rich, deep colour palette that remains consistent throughout. Dark scenes play equally as well as scenes with daylight streaming through the windows of the hospital and the whole look of the film befits the 1960s setting.
The Dolby True HD 5.1 mix is also extremely well presented. Dialogue is clear and the atmospheric score underpins the whole film. Scenes designed to make you jump benefit from sudden bursts of sound pounding the speakers but do so without unwanted distortion or interference.
Sadly the special features with this UK release are slightly disappointing and do not include a key extra from the Stateside release. American fans are treated to an audio commentary with John Carpenter and Jared Harris and anyone who has listened to any of Carpenter’s previous commentaries will realise what a sad omission this is. In fact Carpenter’s only involvement on the extras presented here is a three minute interview. The other extras are more similarly short interviews with members of the cast and unfortunately do not add up to much of any worth.
Film – 3 out of 5
John Carpenter’s return with a gripping and tense horror that hits all the right notes but falls apart in a lazy final act.
Visuals – 4 out of 5
The Blu-ray offers a good looking 1080p transfer in thankfully, the correct screen ratio.
Audio – 4 out of 5
The 5.1 audio mix delivers the right levels for dialogue, shocks and a clear presentation of the excellent score.
Extras – 1 out of 5
Sadly, missing extras from the US release are replaced with decidedly worthless interviews.
Presentation – 3 out of 5
The cover artwork is reasonable enough but sadly not as provocative as the US version. Disc menus are simple and easy to navigate.
Overall – 3 out of 5
Maybe not the return to form that we had hoped for but still Carpenter’s best for over twenty years however the disc doesn’t match the US release for extras leaving UK fans short-changed.
John Carpenter’s The Ward is available on Blu-ray from today.