Legendary director John Carpenter hasn’t been seen at the helm of a feature-length motion picture since 2001’s Ghost of Mars, after which he announced he was leaving Hollywood. And honestly, the guy’s presence has been sorely missed. While Carpenter’s efforts have been hit and miss since the ’80s, an underwhelming Carpenter picture is far more preferable than an unremarkable remake or genre misfire helmed by an inexperienced music video director. This brings us to The Ward, which is Carpenter’s first film since 2001 and which was thusly packaged with high expectations. Alas, it fails to deliver. For those expecting an effective throwback to Carpenter’s landmark early efforts, only heartache is in store. The Ward was not written by Carpenter, nor did he handle the scoring duties, implying that this is more of a “gun for hire” situation than a passion project for the filmmaker. Unfortunately, those that did fulfil The Ward‘s writing and scoring duties are nowhere near as adept as Carpenter.
Following a violent episode culminating with her burning down a farmhouse, Kristen (Heard) is sent to the female-only ward of the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital. While planning an escape, Kristen begins to blend in with the fellow mental patients (including Gummer, Panabaker, Leigh and Fonseca), all of whom evidently live in fear of an evil apparition which apparently haunts the hospital halls. As Dr. Stringer (Harris) seeks to cure Kristen through therapy sessions, it becomes clear that perhaps the doctor is hiding something rather sinister. Freaked out by the apparent ghost, Kristen investigates, and unearths clues which begin to provide her with an outline of the ghostly entity stalking the ward.
The most frightening thing about The Ward is the lack of invention in the desperate, cliché-ridden and unfocused script credited to Michael and Shaun Rasmussen. Though a ghost story essentially lies at the film’s core, it was uneasily hybridised with money-shot slasher kill scenes, psychological mind-fuck terror, and an M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist ending. Not to mention, facets of conventional asylum-based thrillers were thrown in as well, with stock orderlies and matrons, experimental drugs, and shock treatments all surfacing at some point. Just what the fuck is the film meant to be? Added to this, the “twist” ending is meant to shock and surprise, but it is more likely to make you shrug. One should expect a certain degree of formula in a horror movie in this day and age, granted, but would at least a little bit of story innovation be too much to ask from the supposedly triumphant return of a genre icon?
John Carpenter’s directorial exertions seem strictly ordinary, though his work does come alive in select places. At the very least, the photography and editing is often solid, while Carpenter at times displays evidence that he still possesses the skills to build suspense and atmosphere. However, even with a few horrific images sprinkled here and there (most notably those of the “ghost”, which were executed with sublime make-up effects), Carpenter succumbed to clichéd horror playbook techniques that he should be above: jump-scares. The snoozy script is only periodically enlivened by Carpenter, with the usually tedious dialogue scenes eventually giving way to an anticlimactic and underwhelming finale laced with “what the fuck” moments. Heck, the film even closes on a familiar, cheap story beat, suggesting that a worthwhile comeback for Carpenter is impossible unless the aging filmmaker steps up to write his own material.
In the role of Kristen, Amber Heard bares her acting skills (though not her breasts, unfortunately) and clearly worked to convey passion, intensity and deep-rooted hurt. However, it all adds up to an unmemorable piece of acting. Not that there’s anything inherently bad about Heard’s performance, but there’s nothing great about it either, and she frankly looks pale alongside, say, Jamie Lee Curtis in Carpenter’s own Halloween. In supporting roles, Jared Harris makes a worthwhile impression as Dr. Stringer, while the rest of the girls submitted rather good performances. Out of the girls, Mamie Gummer is the standout, though that’s to be expected from Meryl Streep’s daughter.
The Ward is not what this reviewer had hoped. It should have announced John Carpenter’s return to his former glory, imbued with the same genre magic that made the filmmaker such an icon in the first place. Instead, The Ward is a deeply flawed, middle-of-the-road effort, showing that perhaps Mr. Carpenter simply needed a bit of extra cash to pay the bills and therefore agreed to the first script that landed on his desk. With his heart clearly not in it, it seems the filmmaker’s skills have gotten rusty, though it’s undeniably thrilling to see him directing motion pictures again.