It won’t be a spoiler to reveal that “The Ward” is John Carpenter’s entry in explain-it-away psychological horror. (If you think so, then kindly stop where you are.) Of course, the subgenre includes films like “Shutter Island” and “Identity,” a style that sets up an odd universe, usually noticable by the first minutes (as in “The Ward”), to build up a “Usual Suspects” reveal by the end. As a crime mystery, Singer’s film is tailored to such a finale. In horror, hints of surprise can pass by fans who are absorbed by the form. Scorsese’s “Island” creates an anti-real setting that winks contrivance from the director’s chair. When two consecutive shots show a distinct change in lighting, it’s hard to think that Scorsese is honest about the trickster approach. It feels more like an attempt at meta-cinema (in my opinion, unsuccessful).
In this new film by John Carpenter, who will be awarded the 2011 Phantasmagoria Award at the Philadelphia Cinefest, the fact that the staff of a psyche ward, circa 1966, must be aware of unchecked violence and murder shows that something’s fishy. A young woman (Amber Heard) begins the film by burning a home, which brings her to the all-woman ward in question. There she’s enough of a “Girl, Interrupted” for the film to pose as realism, though the rules don’t belong to reality. Seasoned lovers of the genre will know surprise is coming, and some may spot the payoff – though I feel many will recognize it only after the fact.
Here is where fans will divide, though I think that many will side with Carpenter (dormant on the big screen since 2001’s “Ghosts of Mars”). He uses a traditional style to present the trick structure. Fans of 70s cinema, and the director’s work through the 1980s, will delight in his resistance to frenetic trickery and his reliance on clear composition and editing to draw suspense and dread. Whether this form works with the often subjective point of view in Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen’s script is the horror fan’s call. For me, a fan of the genre’s various forms, it works – and creates a worthy entertainment, if not a Carpenter standout.