I hadn’t heard anything about this film when I cracked open this year’s Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) catalog and found it in there. Given the way Wes Craven’s films have been going over the last several years (i.e., downhill fast — I walked out on My Soul to Take last summer because it was boring the hell outta me), I was pretty sure this movie, the first in ten years from Carpenter (one of my all-time favorite horror/sci-fi directors, incidentally — The Thing, Halloween, They Live, Escape from New York, Starman, to name a few), was going to be pretty weak. But I didn’t care. You see, the great thing about seeing films you think/hope will be crappy at SIFF is that you’re seeing them with a room full of other people who are likewise lovers of crap — the worse the movie is, the more fun the audience experience can be. Last year, for example, we had a blast at the absolutely awful film Splice because by the half-way point, everybody in the sold-out audience had given up on the film ever getting good and started ripping it apart aloud together. Awesomeness.
Surprise, surprise, though — this movie isn’t half-bad! That is, it’s pretty bad — after all, it’s a ghost story set in a 1950s psychiatric hospital, which is about as far from unique a concept you can get in the genre — but it actually had a few nice twists, was decently acted, and held my attention throughout (despite the fact I was seeing it at 10:30pm, WAY past my bedtime!).
It’s about a young woman, Kristin (Amber Heard), who has just been committed to North Bend Mental Hospital after burning a farm-house down. On the ward with her are four other girls about her age — one who’s just plain cuckoo (played by Mamie Gummer from the TV series Off the Map), one who cradles a stuffed animal and reacts to things like a little child, one who’s clearly a pathological narcissist, and one who is a lovely but very, very sad young lady.
Her first night on the ward, Kristin wakes to find someone — or something — has stolen her blanket in the night. At first, she thinks it was one of the orderlies or the other girls, but when she starts seeing glimpses of a horribly disfigured girl over the next few days and then is attacked by that same girl in the shower, she becomes convinced the ward is haunted by the ghost of a past patient.
It soon becomes clear she’s right, and that the ghost’s goal is to prevent any of them from ever leaving the hospital, a goal she achieves by brutally murdering them one by one before they can be released. Eventually, Kristin learns the ghost is a girl who was attacked and then killed by all the other girls one night, which explains her motive. And the story progresses fairly predictably from there, though not without a few good scares.
What I liked about this film was that Carpenter clearly knew we were all going to groan and think, “Man, how many times have we seen THIS plot?” and that we’d thus have all kinds of expectations for it. A few of those expectations were turned on their heads, though (they were minor elements, but I still appreciated it), and overall, I thought the story was decent and film itself well-made. Sure, the concept is tired tired tired, but Carpenter somehow still managed to make this movie pretty engaging.
The ending, on the other hand, made me roll my eyes — it’s one of my biggest pet peeve endings of all time. But it was handled well enough that I didn’t figure out that twist was coming until just a scene or two before it arrived — I appreciated that much of it, at least. There were also several little elements that made no sense whatsoever (for example, the psychiatrist in a locked-ward loony bin keeps a sharp, metal letter-opener sitting on his desk??), but a lot of them were essentially taken care of by the ending. Those incongruous bits alone should’ve gotten me suspicious much sooner that a twist was going to overturn a lot of what I was seeing, but I was so engrossed in the story I never got bored enough to start trying to work out where it was headed. Props for that too, Mr. C.
Overall, I thought this was a really enjoyable horror flick. Sure, it’s nowhere near as strong as the other Carpenter films I have known and loved, but it’s no Wes Craven namby-pamby snoozer either. Maybe now that he’s back at work, his next picture will be even stronger? Possible. I’m game to find out, anyway.
I think The Ward gets nation-wide release in July, and I read it will be available on-demand as soon as early June. Well worth the price of admission for fans of the genre, ghost stories in particular.
Cast: Amber Heard, Danielle Panabaker, Mamie Gummer, Lyndsy Fonseca, Jared Harris