89 minutes

It's no secret times are tough for veteran film directors unwilling to fit into Hollywood's current blockbuster mentality - and that is why John Carpenter withdrew from feature filmmaking after the poor reception awarded 2001's Ghosts of Mars. His nearly ten-year sabbatical broken by his two contributions to the Masters of Horror TV series, mr. Carpenter decided to try his luck further by taking on an "assignment" - a low-budget feature he neither wrote nor scored.

     And while the lukewarm response granted to The Ward certainly confirms times remain tough for off-Hollywood veterans, mr. Carpenter has certainly lost none of his verve and zest, even while handling a derivative script that reminds me simultaneously of two very different recent films. One is James Mangold's 2003 thriller Identity - people brought together in an isolated location begin to disappear one by one without a trace; the other is Zack Snyder's 2011 box-office misfire Sucker Punch, with five female madhouse inmates banding together to survive. The references are certainly coincidental (The Ward was finished before Sucker Punch, even though it opened after it in the US), but are indeed a bit too close for comfort.

     The ward of the title is a security area in an Oregon psychiatric hospital where Amber Heard's arsonist Kristen is sent to in the mid-sixties to undergo some sort of experimental psychiatric therapy under dr. Stringer (an appropriately ambiguous Jared Harris). The ward is shared with four other girls also being treated the same way - all of them hiding a secret Kristen is seemingly unable to pry out until mysterious supernatural events intrude.

     Mr. Carpenter's hand is comfortingly all over The Ward. First, in his trademark roaming steadycam pans through the dark corridors of the hospital; then, in the leisurely, steady hand with which he lets the plot unspool, his shrewd direction of the all-female cast (giving sturdier performances than is usual in this sort of genre item). Above all, it is visible in the way he almost imperceptibly revs up the action to make the viewer dismiss the basic implausibilities involved, creating a full head of steam that raises the film above the hokum it would be in a less experienced pair of hands. The Ward may not be a vintage Carpenter, but since all involved treat this piece of genre with respect and dignity, the result is a solidly crafted thriller that harkens back to the golden age of B-filmmaking. Mr. Carpenter has certainly lost none of his considerable talents - he just needs to find material more worthy of it.

Starring Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mika Boorem; and Jared Harris.
     Directed by John Carpenter; produced by Doug Mankoff, Peter Block, Mike Marcus, Andrew Spaulding; written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen; music by Mark Kilian; director of photography (colour, processing by Alpha Cine Labs and Deluxe, widescreen), Yaron Orbach; production designer, Paul Peters; costume designer, Lisa Caryl; film editor, Patrick McMahon; special make-up effects, Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger.
     A Filmnation Entertainment presentation, in association with Premiere Picture, of an Echo Lake Entertainment production in association with A Bigger Boat. (US distributor, ARC Entertainment. World sales, Filmnation Entertainment.)
     Screened: MOTELx Festival - Serviço de Quarto official screening, São Jorge 1 (Lisbon), September 7th 2011.  


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