Talk about a filmmaker who’s dropped off the radar. John Carpenter is an undisputed genre master, responsible for some of the coolest horror/fantasy films of the 20th century, with a tremendous body of work that puts him in some very select cinematic company. I mean, come on! This guy gave us Halloween, The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, and Escape From New York, not to mention exemplary lesser efforts like They Live, Dark Star, In The Mouth of Madness, Starman, Christine, and Assault on Precinct 13. (For completists, his 1979 made-for-TV biopic Elvis with Kurt Russell is sensational). That said, Carpenter hasn’t exactly been pushing himself lately. Since 2001’s uneven Ghosts of Mars, he’s mostly been collecting residual checks for all the lame remakes of his earlier films.

The Ward isn’t a spectacular return to form, but it ain’t bad. It’s a modest little fright film that plays out like a cross between Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and something decidedly more Hitchcockian. Set in “North Bend, Oregon in 1958,” (Editor’s note: I used to live one town over from North Bend. This wasn’t it.) Kristen (Amber Heard) is a runaway who can’t remember her earlier life or why she burned down a farmhouse. The kindly authorities stick her in an asylum run by the mysterious Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris, from Fringe, Dead Man, and Happiness, among other things) and peopled by an oddball assortment of young lady lunatics. Not only is Kristen forced to endure some unsavory psychiatric ordeals (“Here. Bite down on this or you’ll bite your tongue off.”) but she and her fellow inmates end up getting stalked by the vengeful ghost of Alice, a former patient.

You’ve seen this sort of thing before, and there are probably a few plot twists too many, but it’s good to see Carpenter, every bit the craftsman his name implies, doing what he does so well in The Ward, namely exiling the viewer to a darkly menacing world where no one can be trusted.

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