I don’t know what to do about The Ward. When I first heard about it, I was cautiously excited — after all, it is a new John Carpenter movie, and anyone who knows me knows that Carpenter may well be my favorite genre film maker of all time. Of course, that was before he started slipping into mediocrity. Somewhere around the early 90’s, either he stopped trying, or he failed to evolve his techniques, or he simply ran out of ideas. But Carpenter has been struggling to find his place in this modern cinematic landscape. He tried science fiction (Ghosts of Mars), and failed. He tried horror (In The Mouth Of Madness, Village Of The Damned, Vampires), and achieved middling results. He tried going back to his roots (Escape From L.A.), and assembled an utter, miserable disaster. He’s had only two honestly successful efforts — Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life, his entries into Showtime’s series of short films directed by horror icons.
And now he gives us The Ward, another entry into the horror genre, but one that’s quite different from any of his previous works. In The Ward, Carpenter moves away from his tendency to use strong, clever male protagonists, and he also shifts his settings, as well, choosing to forgo his usual choices of dark visions of modernity, or dystopian futures. Instead, the film takes place in a mental institution in rural Oregon, and is set in 1966. It’s an almost jarring shift in tone and setting, but it’s one that’s also rather refreshing. We focus on Kristen (Amber Heard), a young woman who is found kneeling in the driveway of an abandoned farmhouse that she has just set ablaze. Kirsten is promptly dispatched to the local sanitarium, and it’s here where the film takes its first step into the land of derivative stereotypes. The hospital is yet another dreary, grimy, creepy setting — a looming, monolithic construct that is at times effectively spooky, but also looks like it was picked up at a foreclosure sale for architectural cliches. Similarly, the staff consists of the Nurse Ratched knock-off — a hatchet-faced, scowling Susanna Burney as Nurse Lundt, a scummy, brutish orderly named Roy (Dan Anderson), and the mysterious Doctor Stringer (Jared Harris), who works amid rumors of strange, experimental techniques. It’s all eye-rollingly obvious, and it’s not helped by the fact that I just saw these same characters in the atrocious Sucker Punch. So make an effort to clear that movie out of your head before you proceed into this one.
However, the film thrives in its cast of young women. Kristen finds herself in the middle of an unusual collection of other patients — the childlike, terrified Zoey (Laura Leigh), the seemingly put-together, coquettish Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), the bright and talented artist, and Emily (Mamie Gummer), who seems to the be the closest to actually “crazy” among them. Yet they’re all played with an effective subtlety, and despite the cliched setting, none of them falls into the conventional traps of “crazy girl” pictures. They’re neither grrrl-powered Girl Interrupteds, nor are they psychotic, crazy tantrum-throwers. Instead, they’re simply young women trapped in a terrible place, slowly losing hope — and themselves — over time. Watching the group interact and fight and comfort each other is perhaps the high point of the movie. They aren’t given much backstory, but they each effectively work with what they have.
But the film isn’t just creepy doctors and crazy chicks — there’s clearly something terribly wrong at this particular hospital — Kirsten begins to see and hear things, and the girls slowly begin to disappear. A ghoulish, lurching once-girl — a ghost or demon or something worse — serves as the chief tormentor, though no one sees her except Kristen, of course. All of this is linked to past disappearing girls, none of whom are acknowledged by the staff, and who are spoken of only in whispers by the patients. Slowly, Kristen begins to attempt to unravel this haunting little puzzle, while simultaneously plotting her own escape.
The Ward delivers quite well on a few fronts — it’s legitimately spooky at times, and while it doesn’t ever cross the line into actually being scary, it effectively uses mood and atmosphere to create an intense, occasionally chilling experience. Carpenter makes good use of lighting and shadows to amplify the sense of dread, but also to match the sense of unease that the characters feel. While it resorts mostly to jump scares, there are a couple of extended chase sequences that were surprisingly gripping and taut. It’s bolstered by the cast, which is a solid collection of young actresses who seem oddly underutilized by Hollywood. Yet they all acquit themselves well here, and the supporting players don’t harm the film.
If I’m making it sound like The Ward is a success, well… it’s not. It’s got some effective ideas and some affecting moments, but it teeters and then stumbles under the cumbersome weight of its derivative, shallow and predictable story. Carpenter does well with what he’s given, but the script by the brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, is such boilerplate Horror 101 that it’s hard to ever really feel like you’re watching anything new. The ending is painfully predictable — or rather, it’s one of a few possibilities that immediately should pop into the head of any experienced horror fan, and it’s frustrating to see it lumber into such a trite and obvious climax. There’s a twist in the barest sense of the term, and it’s so telegraphed that I felt myself gritting my teeth as we approached its inevitable, boring reveal. The buildup to that climax and the big reveal isn’t bad, and has some engrossing, interesting scenes, even if it feels a bit aimless at times. Yet once the film sets itself on the path to its resolution, it begins to toss aside all that it built and instead opts for a tacky, uninspired ending.
This is the real shame about The Ward. It’s got a decently talented cast, a once-skilled, veteran director of the genre, but they’re burdened by a dopey, unforgettable story that rambles on, directionless and stuttering, for sixty minutes before it veers into the land of obvious plot devices. The Ward is worth watching for Carpenter fans who insist on covering his entire catalog, for horror fans with time to kill, and for people who enjoy watching decent performances by young actors. But if you’re looking for an ultimately satisfying horror film, you’ll find yourself frustrated and ultimately disappointing. The good news is, in a few weeks? You’ll probably forget all about it.