John Carpenter’s The Ward isn’t a particularly remarkable film, and it’s certainly not a very scary one, but there are aspects that I really enjoyed, one of which being the excellent original score, which Carpenter actually didn’t compose himself, for once. The film gets off to a great eerie start with opening credits that are the most evocative sequence of the whole thing, leading into the tale of one seriously disturbed chick (Amber Heard) who finds herself in a whacko mental institution, plagued by the ghost of a restless former patient. A befuddled Doctor (Jared Harris) knows more than he let’s on, of course, and her fellow patients are similarly tormented by the phantom. Here’s the thing: it’s well plotted, acted and executed, save for one thing: it’s never scary. Not once do the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention, and a horror film should have that. I loved the psychological sudoku of an ending, but even there there was no creep factor to be found. Her fellow patients all have parts to play, including Danielle Panabaker, Laura Leigh Claire, Mamie Gummer and a standout Mika Boorem who steals the show from Heard right in the final act. Works as a thriller, padded with atmosphere here and there, but could have done with a better dose of chills to sweeten the deal.
The one great benefit that any film based on a Stephen King story has is just that: it’s based on a Stephen King story. The guy is just such a prodigy of fiction that even if the film version of one of his books doesn’t deliver, one can still see the brilliant blueprint lurking beneath the frames. When the filmmakers are successful, however, we get a visually stimulating project founded on the tale he has weaved to support all the other elements. Hearts In Atlantis is based on an anthology volume of his, and in fact the story the film follows isn’t even called that, it’s actually ‘Low Men In Yellow Coats’. I can see why the director went with Hearts In Atlantis though, as it’s much more akin to the ethereal, sentimental tone he was going for, and less of an ominous hook. The story itself follows a mysterious man named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), a recent tenant in the home of young Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) and his wayward mother (a miscast Hope Davis). The setting is Midwestern America, in the dead heat of a 1950’s summer. Bobby spends his days cavorting in the local woodlands with his fastest of friends, Carole (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar). He takes a shine to Ted though, who pays him a dollar a week to read to him, and warns him of shadowy ‘low men’, threatening figures who doggedly pursue him for nasty reasons. Ted becomes a father figure for young Bobby, whose mother has questionable ideas about not only raising a son, but taking care of her own affairs. Now the film may seem a bit thinly plotted to some, and there’s a reason for that. This story is actually a tiny fragment in a much larger tale, King’s magnum opus The Dark Tower. Ted and Bobby have important parts to play in that saga, in which the events of this film are but a sentence long. Some viewers may feel slighted by a lack of context, but the filmmakers here still find a way to make this its own story, crafting a touching coming of age story melded with whispers of otherworldly intrigue. The fusion of beguiling nostalgia and the vague menace that advances on Bobby and Ted makes for a unique tone, something just south of a thriller which can’t quite be pinned down by genre labels. Hopkins can be both terrifying and tender depending on the role. Here he is kindness incarnate as a man whose worldly intuition goes beyond telekinesis into the kind of qualities reserved for the best and brightest. Yelchin and Boorem, who would star alongside each other again a few years later in the lacklustre Along Came A Spider, are the superb heart of the film. Yelchin has shown a constant progression of strongly realized, believable work and the quality of his craft can be traced back to this stunning genesis role. Boorem is highly underused these days, and one need only watch her light up the screen with emotional sincerity in this to see why she should be working far more. There’s neat supporting work from Tom Bower, Celia Weston, Alan Tudyuk and David Morse as an older version of Bobby who yearns for days gone by. I found myself deeply enjoying this one whilst constantly drawing back to the knowledge and context I have for it via The Dark Tower, but the film on it’s own is enough to provide a rewarding experience for anyone who isn’t familiar with the multiverse. Amid King’s favourite topics and settings are Midwest adolescence, idiosyncratic nooks of Americana and the ever present supernatural aspect, dynamics which Hearts In Atlantis gives us aplenty, along with an open invitation to explore the universe farther, should one want to venture along the path to the Tower. I’d recommend it.