‘The Ward’ Pissed Me Off (And It’s Not What You Think)

One of these days, I’m going to have to write a John Carpenter Project.

As a movie nerd, I’m in love with Carpenter’s work by definition. Halloween would be enough, but the man also made a movie about a bottle of green slime that can animate the dead and possess Alice Cooper through advanced mathematics.

And he nailed it.

But if you’re reading this, you know that it’ll take me a while to get to the eventual John Carpenter Project because my schedule is booked with all of the cocaine parties and supermodel orgies that come with being an unpaid movie blogger with over 30 Twitter followers.

So, instead, I’m going to talk about The Ward now.

I’ve only now gotten around to seeing Carpenter’s first feature since 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, partly because it didn’t come through theaters in my area and I wanted to make sure I’d see it in the right conditions to really examine it. I wasn’t going to screen the film on my phone or some other bullshit because, if nothing else, Carpenter has earned my undivided attention.

I also probably waited longer than I should to see the film because, frankly, everybody whose opinion I respect agreed that it sucked. And the only thing that could possibly kill the buzz of a new John Carpenter horror film is finding out that the old John Carpenter is gone.

So I was nervous when I cued it up and I got the Jagermeister ready in case it turned out to be a poop fest, but then I discovered something kinda infuriating:

The Ward is a proper John Carpenter movie.

OK, it’s definitely not the best John Carpenter movie. It’s got a really thin, derivative script built around a plot that’s already been scooped by two other films, one from 2003 and the other from 2010 (I’ll leave those of you who’ve seen The Ward to guess which movies I’m referencing.)

So, yeah, it’s not good, but it’s nowhere near Carpenter’s worst film, either. In fact, I’d say that it’s probably his best feature film since 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness.

(I’m specifically talking about features here, because his Masters of Horror entry “Cigarette Burns” is pretty damn great.)

The filmmaking in The Ward is good-to-great. Carpenter uses light, fog, and shadow like the old master that he is, dragging out a legitimate, earned sense of terror that distracted me from that growing sense in the back of my mind that I knew where this movie was going, and that the destination was dumb.

But what really set me to typing here is that The Ward is a return to a classic type of horror filmmaking that’s long since vanished from studio-funded pictures. The film has all of its fanboy hot buttons covered:

  • The movie relies on genuine atmosphere and actual tension rather than a string of false jump scares. (There are jump scares, to be sure, but the movie doesn’t lean on them and it’s never revealed to be somebody’s fucking cat or something. When you jump, it’s usually because the monster just showed up and made you jump.)
  • The movie rates a near-zero on computer graphics. Nothing kills horror like digital blood or CGI ghost effects, and Carpenter knows that. The Ward relies almost entirely on practical makeup and gore.
  • In particular, the antagonist monster is very nicely realized, completely in-camera, and with makeup that calls back to Carpenter’s best work. The critter would have fit right in to the final act of Prince of Darkness.
  • The actors mostly deliver legitimate, strong performances, especially Jared Harris, Amber Heard, and Dan Anderson. No easy task considering the flimsy state of the material.
  • There’s no choppy editing or music video style-farts. It’s just a simple horror story told with clean, classic filmmaking. It’s not too flat. It’s not overdone.
  • The script may be ridiculously derivative and predictable, but it’s still an original story, not a remake.

The Ward is not a great horror movie, but it’s exactly the type of horror movie that we’ve begged to see and which the studios never make because they believe “old-school” horror can’t find support.

And we proved them right.

If Carpenter has a history of taking C-material and turning it into a B+, well then The Ward is D material and he turned it into a C+. We owed him a nice round of applause for returning to form and for still being the John Carpenter we recognized.

(And just in case someone wants to make the case that we would have been there for the film had it been better, let me remind you that The Wolfman and A Nightmare on Elm Street both hit theaters in 2010 and both received way, way more people despite being exactly the same kind of hyper-stylized remake crap we’re supposed to hate. Which one did you pay to see in theaters that year, Nightmare or The Ward? I’m not proud of my answer.)

But instead we (and again, I’m including myself) didn’t support The Ward and it died a quiet death, secretly turning the screw one more twist toward the death of classical horror filmmaking. Once again, we begged for a certain type of movie, and then pushed our plate away when it was served to us.

If The Ward is our last John Carpenter feature film, it’ll be a damn shame. And it’ll be our fault.

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