Director John Carpenter's wheelhouse is psychological storytelling. From the disruption of a normal woman's life in Eyes of Laura Mars to the unfeeling menace of the Halloween series, Carpenter's reputation relies on finding new ways of exploring perception and its impact on the psyche. This approach isn't limited to screenwriting, either. Carpenter focuses the camera on the mind, not the body, even when blood is spilling all over the place. The Ward places his psychological focus on a mental hospital. Kristen is brought into the women's ward after torching a farmhouse to the ground. She's given free reign to wander throughout the ward and interact with the other young patients. Kristen also explores what happened to the girls who thought they were ready to leave the hospital. Why is no one allowed to talk about them anymore?
The Ward hits on a few horror mainstays in obvious ways. The patients in the ward warn the new girl not to bow down to treatment. Patients are subjected to experimental treatments with no explanation from the doctor. The ghosts of the past literally haunt the hospital. The patients themselves might be more dangerous than any outside forces at play.
A horror film does not need to be innovative to be successful. What it does need is thoughtful execution, strong characters, and tight editing. This is where having a director like John Carpenter poses a distinct advantage. He's not the best at saving a bad screenplay; however, he's a master at elevating an okay story into a great film.
The design of The Ward is on point. The 1960s setting allows for some cool aesthetic choices for defining conflicts. The hospital staff is in crisp white from top to bottom, popping against the faded walls. The minimal set dressing forces the characters to interact with each other. All of the patients are defined by a different part of the cultural revolution in the sixties. The girls in cigarette pants and button down shirts are instantly at odds with the girls and staff in below the knee skirts and perfect pony tails. There is nothing on set to distract you from the psychological undercurrents of the story.
The characters are brought to life by a strong cast. The ever-patient doctor is made frustratingly pleasant and professional by Jared Harris. Amber Heard fully embodies the rebellious spirit of Kristen, plotting against her forced confinement as more stories of old patients emerge. Mamie Gummer is a scene stealer as the hardened cynic of ward. Each character connected to the ward gets a big moment to shine that helps elevate some of the cliches in the screenplay.
Best of all is the editing of The Ward. The twists at the end of the story are handled with a deft hand for foreshadowing. An ending that can easily feel like a cop out (many horrors and thrillers have failed miserably because of it) feels true to this film. The appearance of the ghostly figures are subtle scare moments that refuse to play to the expected beats. Sure, you'll know that the ghost is going to appear behind a character, but the edit does not play the moment when you expect it.
The Ward is a solid, if not innovative, horror film. John Carpenter delivers his signature style in such a controlled way. His vision helps what could easily be a dull story come alive.
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