July 2011 | (USA) | John Carpenter | 89 min | R
Synopsis: Kristen (Amber Heard) is admitted to the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital in 1966 after she sets fire to a house. As she acclimates to this new setting of locked doors, restricted company, frequent medications, and forced treatments, she learns that there is an additional threat to the ward and its patients: the ghost of Alice Hudson. Alice, out for revenge, chases the girls slasher-style throughout the asylum until the film culminates in an unsurprising twist ending.
Review: Wrong monster, wrong place. The slasher/haunting plot is misplaced in a setting rich with its own horrors, none of which are fully taken advantage of.
It’s either fitting or extremely inappropriate that I’m writing this review on the tenth of October, World Mental Health Day. Because I have an interest in the history and cultural construction of mental illness, I was excited about The Ward’s setting in a 1960s asylum, a time and place when mental illness was a potent source of fear, not just fear of one’s own psychological demons but of how those demons might be “treated.” The opening credits immediately locate the film’s themes amongst barbaric treatments with splintered images of actual woodcuts, illustrations, and black-and-white photographs, all depicting patients undergoing agonizing treatment. The homage to these historical treatments gives Carpenter a promising starting point on which to build his narrative of horror.
Sadly, he builds it in a different direction entirely. The presence of the ghost and the shift in focus from the horrors of medical treatment to the common supernatural revenge plot turns what could have been a deeply-disturbing horror film into a slasher film reminiscent of Halloween without the originality that made that film legendary. That film, if we remember, also featured an asylum patient but, by removing the patient from the hospital and placing him in the suburbs, it introduced horror into the mundane. This time, Carpenter keeps us in the asylum but does not take advantage of the inherent dread, mystery, and raw terror of the space itself. With a creature that resembles a basic zombie more than a ghost, it would seem that he introduces the mundane to a space of horror.
While I have no problem with cheap monsters (and certainly no problem with zombies), what makes the monster of The Ward disappointing is that we’ve seen the gleefully grotesque creatures that inhabit the world of The Thing and know that Carpenter can do better. Even though we, at first, mostly view the ghost of Alice as a hand reaching for victims, ice picks, or scalpels, as the film devolves into chase scenes, we see all of Alice, time and time again. The first rule of horror films is, don’t show the monster, not unless that monster is pretty damn impressive. Even her use of medical implements as murder weapons seems to lose its bravado.
On the other hand, Carpenter seems to be trying to insert horror where there is none. For example, we follow Kristen through the admissions process fairly early in the film: she’s wheeled into the building, her clothing is removed, photos are taken of the bruises on her arms, and she’s given a shower. During a later scene, a guard escorts her back to her room after she’s escaped. These simple scenes are accompanied by the terrifying music we love in Carpenter films… but we’re not sure why it’s there. Even the first glimpse we see of electroconvulsive shock therapy happens quickly, without drama, and is just as quickly forgotten as the ghost again takes center stage. In the margins, however, we do get glimpses of really interesting things happening.
After Kristen first sees the ghost and is about to be medicated against her delusion, she insists that she did see something and that she’s not crazy. This brief scene speaks to one reason why asylums feature so prominently in horror, because there is a certain amount of terrifying desperation in the helplessness of needing help and not being believed. As a review on IFC.com said in 2011, “This, I think, is a fascinating set-up for a horror movie: a ghost stalks the inmates of a mental institution, who are incapable of convincing anyone they’re being haunted because their doctors are convinced they’re crazy. Unfortunately, that is not the set-up for this horror movie.” The dilemma is never brought up again. We also get flashes from Kristen’s past, of a young girl in chains, waiting for her kidnapper to return, and we’re told that the house she sets fire to in the beginning of the film is the house where it happened. I want to see that film and that revenge plot. But, again, we get only hints of it.
The Ward is more a disappointment than a lost cause, however. Its curse is that it cannot seem to escape the asylum films that have come before it, and it pales next to them. The head nurse has been heavily influenced by Nurse Ratched, though she lays it on too thick to be more than a one-dimensional character. The “new kid,” like McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, becomes an idolized leader who cares for the other patients and attempts to orchestrate their escape. If I were to describe the film in just a few words, though, I would call it Girl, Interrupted with a ghost and very creepy music, but even that film (though not horror) went deep into the unsettling state of mental health. And, the twist ending of The Ward is almost identical, conceptually, to that of Shutter Island, released the previous year. Shutter Island did it better.
In all, the film is watchable, even enjoyable at parts, mostly for the music (though overly dramatic) and cinematography. But, this ghost is wasted on a space that has plenty of more disturbing ghosts of its own.
Singer, Matt. “‘John Carpenter’s The Ward,’ Reviewed. IFC.com. 8 July 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2015. http://www.ifc.com/fix/2011/06/john-carpenters-the-ward-revie
Laura Kremmel received an MA in English from Lehigh in 2009 and an MLitt in Gothic Literature from Stirling University in 2010. Her dissertation considers the ways in which the Gothic imagination extends Romantic-era medical experimentation throughout the Gothic texts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including poetry, drama, novels, and chapbooks. Where scientific thought reached its limits, the Gothic could pick up the scalpel and set to work on dissections and cures of its own. Though she considers herself to be a Romanticist, she is also a Gothicist, interested in all facets of the tradition, Romantic to Contemporary. At Stirling, her MLitt dissertation explored the vampiric character of melancholia in works ranging from Polidori’s The Vampyre to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Laura also runs Lehigh’s Gothic reading group, has published on The Walking Dead, and is a frequent blogger. Follow her on Twitter @LKremmel.