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John Carpenter's The Ward

“The Ward” is John Carpenter’s first movie since “Ghosts of Mars” nine years ago. This new movie is a classic horror tale set in a spooky locale on a dark and stormy night featuring a vengeful ghost. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.

The movie opens on a dark and stormy night at a mental institution. Inside one of the rooms, a young female patient is pretty sure that there is someone or something creeping outside her room. As she stands to take a look through the door’s window, she is strangled from behind by what can only be a ghost, since the door was locked from the outside.

The following morning another young girl (Amber Heard) is running through the countryside. She finds an empty house, whose address was written on her hand, and immediately sets fire to the curtains thus burning the house down. The police find her collapsing at the scene and she is immediately taken to the asylum where the first girl was taken.

Once there she tells nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney) that her name is Kristen and that she doesn’t belong here. She is then taken to the titular ward where she meets the usual suspects when it comes to movies set in an asylum: nurse Lundt is somewhat reminiscent of nurse Ratchet in the way that she will inject any patient who goes haywire, Roy the orderly (Dan Anderson) is rude and pushy, and there is the good Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) who only wants to help. When Kristen accuses him of thinking she is crazy he actually uses the old line “We don’t like to use that term here.” Unfortunately for Kristen, the story takes place in the 1960s and back then they did like using electroshock therapy.

Also on the ward are Emily (Mamie Gummer) the cynical one, Sarah (Danielle Panabaker) the charming one, Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca) the bookish one, and Zoey (Laura Leigh) the one who plays with a stuffed bunny.  You better keep track because one by one they are killed by the ghost that haunts the ward. That right there makes for a scary tale to be told around a campfire. You are locked in a place where everyone thinks you are crazy, so if you tell anyone that there is homicidal ghost on the loose you will be proving them right.

So, is the movie scary? At first, you bet. That ghost keeps popping out from around the corners of that dark ward, where it seems to be constantly raining outside. Characters have to hide in dark closets where you know the ghost is waiting.  Inside the morgue a banging noise is coming from inside a drawer where the dead bodies are kept. The problem is that after a while, that ghost is quite frankly, annoying. There is a reasonable explanation as to why it is killing all of the girls in the ward, but it doesn’t make any sense for it to be after Kristen. At one point she is actually wrestling with that freaking poltergeist and I wanted her to scream: “What do you want with ME? Stop appearing out of nowhere, it’s ANNOYING!”

Then, there is a twist ending. I am talking about one of those twist endings that force you to watch the movie a second time, because everything you thought was happening was not happening, or at least, not exactly.  If you pay attention, there are plenty of clues, even in the opening credits. It is not the most original twist for a ghost story ever written, which is why I am a little surprise Carpenter chose this particular script to make his return to the horror genre after all these year. It just seems that someone less talented could have done more or less the same thing.  I just expected more from the man who gave us the original “Halloween” and his remake of “The Thing” (which I found to be far more entertaining than the original).

Still, as scary ghost stories go, “The Ward” works. I watched it with a full audience at TIFF and a lot of people jolted at the right moment. I even thought about it as I got ready for bed last night and thought this would be a really great time for the ghost to pop out from under my bed and stab me in the eye.  That’s a sign the director has done a good job.


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