Horror maestro John Carpenter is back after a 10-year feature film hiatus with “The Ward,” a psychological thriller set within a mental institution. Since wrapping “Ghosts of Mars” (2001), Carpenter has helmed two episodes of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series and seen Hollywood remake some of his seminal work (“Halloween,” “Assault on Precinct 13,” “The Fog” and the upcoming re-imaginings of “Escape from New York” and “The Thing”).
“The Ward” has a classic spooky-stuff-in-small-spaces setup: Set in the 1960s, it concerns a young woman who sets an old farmhouse on fire and finds herself in the all-female North Bend Psychiatric Hospital. The patients warn her of a ghost that haunts the premises. While the film finds Carpenter on familiar turf, it also finds him working for the first time with an almost all-female ensemble. We caught up with Carpenter to discuss his return to filmmaking and what he makes of all these remakes.
Why have you been keeping your fans waiting for so long for a new feature?
Well, I stopped because I was very burned out in the process of moviemaking. I was burned out on cinematic storytelling. I had worked several years in a row to mixed results. I was just tired. I didn’t have any more energy. I didn’t care as much about it. You have to love what you’re doing.
What got your drive back?
It started with a TV series I did for Showtime. I did two episodes. We shot those in Vancouver. They were each an hour. That’s when I remembered how much fun it was. Being on the floor, directing actors. I had a really good time. So after that, I started rekindling my interest.
What was it about “The Ward” that appealed to you? Unlike many of your earlier films (“The Fog,” “Ghosts of Mars”), you didn’t have a hand in the screenplay.
It was a small film: A contained location… kind of a psychological thriller that takes place in a mental institution. It also had an ensemble cast of ladies that I was very interested in working with. And it dealt with issues of fantasy and reality. It seemed like a fun thing to do and it was also very doable for the money.
You’ve had women headline many of your most popular films, but this marks the first time you worked with a pretty much all-female cast. Did that aspect attract you?
Very much so. It was something I hadn’t done before. I looked forward to working with young actors too. My cast was extremely talented. They came ready every day. They had their characters fleshed out. And we just all had a good time.
What is about women in horror? They tend to take center stage. Why do they make for more popular protagonists in the genre?
That probably comes back to silent films. It goes back to back to the notion of the heroine. It’s just sort of a tradition.
Who was the first female screen icon to grab your attention?
When I was a young man growing up in the ’50s watching science fiction, there was one actress I was attracted to and astonished by: a girl named Allison Hayes. There’s a famous film called “Attack of the 50- Foot-Woman.” Well, she’s the 50-foot-woman. Very statuesque. Terrific actress who got cast in a lot of films like this. Maybe it was an early crush of mine.
You spoke earlier of confined spaces. Is it a requisite to add to tension?
It’s not necessarily that way in film. But it’s the way I see it. Maybe it’s the way I see life: Kind of isolated in a confined space. All around you is evil. It’s been something I’ve been attracted to since I was very young.
What do you attribute that to?
Insanity. I don’t know. The way I grew up.
A slew of your films have either been remade (“Halloween,” “Assault on Precinct 13”, “The Fog”) or used to inspire spin-offs (“The Thing”). Do you wish audiences would just revisit the originals instead of seeing the new ones?
They can watch mine or they can watch theirs. It’s fine.
Are you one to keep a close watch on the revamps?
I don’t want to monkey in any director’s vision. I’ve never wanted to interfere. I don’t even like to be on another director’s set. The one good thing about some of these films, is that I had a hand in creating the story. I usually get paid a good sum of money for them to remake it. That’s a very fine thing.
What can you tell me about the upcoming prequel to “The Thing”?
They wisely put a girl in it. I probably made the mistake of having an all-male cast. I’m interested to see it.
What’s next for you? Going back to the director’s chair?
I’m working on a number of things right now in various stages of development. After all my years of working I want to take my time. I don’t have to work that hard. I have a career behind me.
“The Ward” opens in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis and New Orleans on July 8. You can ask Carpenter questions today, July 8, via Twitter from 2-3:30pm PST. Send your questions to @ARC_Entertain to get an answer. Make sure to include #theward in your tweet to ensure your question gets to the right place!