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Thursday, 23 January 2014

JOHN CARPENTER’S THE WARD (2011): Cue Psych 101 as Marnie meets Girl, Interrupted

It’s below 30 degrees outside and I’m home alone, so of course I turn to Netflix for comfort. Scrolling along I happen across The Ward and wonder why I haven’t seen it yet. Now I know.

2 Stars 

Warning: This review may contain spoilers

Still from The Ward (2011)

This film has an awful lot of potential - it's a ghost story set in a 1960s psych ward for women. So why does it fall so flat? It pains me a little to criticize Carpenter and Hitchcock here, I honestly cherish their work, but some things just need to be said. One major obstacle when dealing with "crazy" subjects is representation. While the representation of the 60s medical institution is quite powerful at times with extremely uncomfortable scenes of electroshock therapy, the big finale employs a Hitchcockian style “psyh 101”, as a therapist explains away the entire film with a simple case of, well, “crazy”.

Hichcock famously utilized this technique in Psycho to explain Norman Bates’ condition. 4 years later, he directed the rather subpar Marnie, taking his apparent interest in psychology even further. This time, a beautiful habitual thief is taken on as a project by a rich businessman. Despite her resistance and aggression, he eventually finds her triggers and uses them to reveal her childhood trauma. By making her face this experience, she is healed. I suppose Carpenter figured a similar method could work, so long as he set the film in the 1960s. But it doesn’t. In The Ward, the disturbed arson, Kristen, is locked away with only an  evil medical faculty and a group of other “damaged” girls. In the fashion of a brilliant 1999 James Mangold film, Girl, Interrupted, many of the girls’ issues seem to have to do with a desire to have freedoms, both in and out of the institution. However, the acting in Carpenter’s film is sloppy at best. It does not have the magic of Mangold’s film because the representations of trauma and frustration are entirely insincere. In some cases they are undeveloped, in others they are exaggerated.

When it comes to cinema, I am always inclined to identify any aspects of a film I can enjoy. This definitely enhances the viewing experience. So these are the things that kept me going while watching The Ward. That the women seemed unfairly treated by the entire medical establishment was where I was able to find some true horror. Historically speaking, women have certainly faced some atrocities having to do with “mental health” and “treatment”, and I am always impressed when filmmakers explore or address this in some capacity. Also, the “ghost” figure haunting the patients is actually pretty creepy. Not a traditional ghost by any means, and definitely intimidating to meet in a darkened hallway. So that was kind of refreshing. Lastly, the cinematography was what you would expect from Carpenter, so there was a suspenseful atmosphere.

Ultimately, I would never expect to find this film on a Top 10 list unless it was dedicated to surprising failures.