After Carpenter’s last and uninspiring Ghosts of Mars in 2001, there is some intrepidation about watching a glossier Noughties offering, considering his former masterpieces have a gritty and nostalgic B-movie quality to them, including Christine, The Thing, and the film that still makes fog scary, The Fog in 1980. The Ward has a noticeably different aesthetic quality to it, more polished and more aware of the tastes of the modern audience.
That said The Ward remains true to good old-fashioned horror roots, with long, vortex-styled corridor shots, creepy dark shadows and flesh-rotting ghouls. It also has a graceful, celestial and remote feeling to it, resembling a cross between the open-panned spaces of the sinister Overlook Hotel in The Shining and the soulless wards of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. As a Carpenter comeback it doesn’t lose the shadowy suspense and all-important timing of his previous hits, but is far slicker and may surprise some fans.
Amber Heard plays a young woman who is institutionalised and becomes terrorised by a ghost called Alice. Heard of Mandy Lane fame is fast-becoming our favourite pin-up horror girl. Highly watchable and full of earnest curiosity and fighting spirit, she has an instant leading lady quality that needs tapping into more. Although The Ward is a safe bet, Heard’s talents are screaming out to be put to better use in a meatier psychological affair, to elevate her out of the teen horror cliché she’s becoming too comfortable in.
Nevertheless, The Ward never has a dull moment, with some decent jump-out-of-your-skin cheap scares, emotionless authority, and some thoughtful twists that merely showcase its film-maker’s expertise and patience at letting the elements play out to the big reveal. It even has a titillating shower scene – a cinematic must when a bunch of nubile and attractive young girls are present. It’s a tired cliché that’s quickly forgiven as Carpenter’s at the helm who helped established these clichés years before.
The evil entity that lurks in wait to kill The Ward’s residents would be more effective, if its physical identity had not been revealed so soon – like the demonic misty figure on CCTV in The Ring. In fact, judging by the success of the Paranormal Activity films, less is more. Sadly, the ghoul in The Ward is almost comical, like a girl in bad Halloween fancy dress and makeup that reduces the fear factor somewhat. Perhaps latter-day audiences have grown out of the pustule form of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and pseudo-realism is the only way to inject some sheer terror, otherwise the end result is a camp dark comedy with synthesized soundtracks to prompt our reactions, however thrilling.
The Ward isn’t quite a grandiose return to form for Carpenter, but it is a highly accomplished and effective horror that highlights the true ‘Master of Horror’ at work, and gives Heard another platform to further carve out her ‘Heroine of Horror’ niche.