Carpenter's oeuvre has been marked by vibrant, cross-genre pollination, sly self-references, and infectious, tongue-in-cheek humor. At their best, his movies have reminded people that it's acceptable to laugh while being frightened or thrilled. He built his brand by playing with conventions while drawing from the world beyond the screen. They Live featured astute, anti-consumerist, Reagan-era social commentary—not to mention an
Gene Siskel-esque alien film critic denounced the director’s predilection for violence. In Escape From L.A, Snake Plissken broke the
fourth wall to directly address the viewer. And the action-horror-comic
hybrid of Big Trouble in Little China was basically one big long in-joke.
So it's distressing to see Carpenter play things so straight in The Ward.
The film is simple and self-contained, one of the only Carpenter works to exist entirely within its own shell. Critics have not been kind to it, with Salon's Andrew O'Hehir going as far as calling it "an awful lot like a low-budget knockoff of Zack
Snyder’s Sucker Punch.”
Speaking with The Atlantic, Carpenter shared no deeper reason for returning to filmmaking than that he was intrigued by the challenge of a small
flick with his first nearly all-female ensemble.
Maybe that’s really all there is, and this once-distinctive voice has transformed into a serviceable director-for-hire. But it's hard not to wonder whether Carpenter's hiatus from Hollywood—and his lackluster return—can be in part chalked up to the fact that horror movies have changed, and Carpenter's old, out-of-the-box approach is no longer in fashion.
The filmmaker admits there’s less of an audience for the “slower, more leisurely paced” movies he’s accustomed to making.
Beyond that, however, few modern films reflect the glorified B-picture comedy-sci-fi-horror blended spirit that Carpenter perfected. Those that do,
like the recent Hobo with a Shotgun, occupy a niche market of limited theatrical releases and desperate on demand airings. It’s not a
feeling that can be adequately captured in two-minute commercial spots. Though Carpenter's films are frequently remade by other directors, the newer
versions of his works (such as the 2005 Assault on Precinct 13) tend to hew toward safer conventions.
Admittedly, from a commercial standpoint, Carpenter hasn’t had a hit in decades. Each of his '90s efforts—from Memoirs of an Invisible Man to Vampires—performed poorly business at the box office. Ghosts of Mars was a fairly
significant flop. It is, therefore, not surprising that he’s making his comeback on a miniscule budget, with a limited theatrical release (the
film is also available on demand) for small distributors ARC Entertainment. But it is telling.
The lukewarm response that has greeted The Ward since it debuted at last year’s Toronto Film Festival is, of course, nothing new for
Carpenter. “Welcome to my career,” he says. In fact, even some of his most affectionately-regarded movies were initially received with less
than total enthusiasm. “This material has been done before, and better,” Roger Ebert wrote of The Thing. Variety, amazingly, called
the seminal Halloween “just another maniac-on-the-loose suspenser.”