John Carpenter is an old man, and he makes old man films. In one way that’s refreshing. He knows where to put his camera in a sequence with multiple people. He knows when to use a close up, and never shoots a film like it’s a TV show. But he’s also a man without a country in new Hollywood, working with low budgets and ambling on with no great respect from those who’ve ripped him off. His latest film, The Ward, was given limited theatrical release before hitting home video. It stars Amber Ward, Danielle Panabaker and Jared Harris in a tale about young girls in the 1960’s who are stuck in a mental institution with a ghost. Our review of the Blu-ray of the The Ward follows after the jump.
The film begins with Amber Heard’s character Kristen burning down a house. She’s quickly arrested and brought to a mental institution where she encounters the girls in the ward (including Panabaker, Mamie Gummer, Laura-Leigh and Lyndsy Fonseca) and who meet her with some resentment. There’s also Dr. Stringer (Harris), who is there to help. But as Kristen spends more time there, she experiences the ghost of Alice, who menaces the girls in the ward, and starts torturing them with the devices used in psychotherapy in the 1960’s.
The biggest problem with this film is that the film’s final reveal is going to feel old hat to anyone who’s seen a number of these films. It would be unfair to reveal for a film that most people haven’t seen, but prepare to groan. And it may ruin the film’s modest pleasures – if I didn’t see it at home I might be pissed off. At home, it’s such a small film that its good moments make it better than most DTV titles.
And to that Carpenter is a good craftsman, and he knows how to use a camera. Though this obviously isn’t a passion project, his work here highlights that the man knows what he’s doing. Unfortunately the mechanics of the film sink it. As a mood piece it is effective, and though it uses a number of old horror tricks and ticks, some of them – like “quiet, quiet, LOUD!” – work.
The performers are solid if unexceptional. Amber Heard can topline a film, and she’s fine in the role, but there’s not much there, and at times she has a terribly distracting hair-do. Danielle Panabaker has fun playing a less pleasant character, and though she’s not found her place in the Hollywood system, it feels like there’s more to her than films have gotten out of her. Harris is on the commentary, but his role is modest, and he does a good job at it, but there’s not much there.
As a film that nearly went straight to home video, it’s easy to be sympathetic to the film – which is better than some of the horror films that have been released theatrically recently. But perhaps it’s better partly because it never went that wide. Because of the setting the film reminds of Sucker Punch. For about an hour of the running time, I thought it was better than Zack Snyder’s film. By the end, I wasn’t sure which I liked more. Take that as you will.
Arc Entertainment’s Blu-ray is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The transfer is perfect. Though it never looks all that much more than a straight to video title in terms of lighting, the composition makes it feel fresher. Extras include a fun commentary by Jared Harris and John Carpenter and the theatrical trailer. Carpenter is naturally curious and so the conversation leaves the film early and the two just talk. It’s very entertaining, and makes it a must listen.