After they catch her for burning down an abandon farmhouse, police take Kristen (Amber Heard, Pineapple Express) to an asylum. There she meets the other residents of her ward, all young women: Emily (Mamie Grummer), the “crazy” one; Sarah (Danielle Panabaker, Appaloosa), the sexy one; Zoey (Laura-Leigh), who acts like a little girl; and Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca, Hot Tub Time Machine), the “artistic” one. Watching over everyone is Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris, The Last of the Mohicans), a young doctor who uses “radical new methods” (don’t they always?); cold Nurse Lundt (Susana Burney); and tough orderly Roy (D. R. Anderson). Can Kristen find a way off the ward and figure out the secret of the disappearances and strange happenings there?
John Carpenter was a giant of the genre films of the late 1970s through the 1980s, directing influential hits (Halloween), beloved cult classics (The Fog, The Thing) and commercial successes (Starman) but he faltered in the 1990s. Carpenter stopped directing feature films altogether after the almost universally disliked Ghosts of Mars. The Ward marked Carpenter’s return to feature film directing but it failed to be the return to form that many hoped for.
Although I would like to disagree with the reviews of the film, I can’t say that I can. The best I can say is that it does not go over the usual Carpenter ground (possession by evil forces, sieges, bad ass loner anti-heroes with ridiculous names) but instead goes over ground well-worn by others. Set for no apparent reason in 1966, The Ward manages to drag in just about every sanitarium movie cliché possible, which can be seen clearly from the description of the characters above. While the bland story and characters can be blamed on screenwriters Shawn and Michael Rassmussen, Carpenter’s direction adds little. The pace of the film is somnolent and there is no tension or surprises. Even scenes which should be hard to watch or provide jump scares lack any impact. The performances are uniformly bland; the best character turns out to be Roy, but the small surprise of a minor character having more depth (or at least acting against type) can’t breathe life into the bland archetypes which fill the screen. Towards the end the film starts to become interesting, and maybe if the film skipped out on the twist and told a more straightforward ghost story well it might have been routine but entertaining.
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
Instead, adding insult to injury, is the standard “BIG TWIST” of the 00s, a curse that won’t seem to leave movies, the “lead is crazy and major characters don’t actually exist outside of her head” ending rears its ugly head. This twist is as tired as the “it was only a dream” or “it’s not supernatural, it’s just Old Man Wilkens out to scare his niece to death for the insurance money” used to be. Every time characters turn out to be figments of other character’s imagination, the Muses weep. To make matters worse Carpenter uses his standard “it’s not over” ending, which makes little sense here and only results in more comparisons with the execrable John Cusack thriller Identity. Ultimately The Ward is less infuriating than that film only because it never seems like it will amount too much.
Not even John Carpenter fans should subject themselves to this lesser effort; you’d be far better off making sure you’ve seen all of his best movies, watching your favorite Carpenter film again, or seeking out a good pysych ward thriller like Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor.