Review: John Carpenter's The Ward

If only for a moment, let’s pretend that this isn’t John Carpenter’s The Ward.

Let’s pretend that this year’s Sucker Punch and last year’s Shutter Island didn’t happen to cover similar territory with a more pronounced sense of style (though I’d argue only the latter ultimately succeeded).

Let’s pretend that there’s no limp late-period John Carpenter films to contend with, and that there isn’t even the expectation of great Carpenter here. He hasn’t made a movie in a decade, and he hasn’t made a decent one in two.

What’s left? The Ward, an aggressively plain spook story that favors startling jump moments over sustained tension and winds up falling back on a particularly tired twist.

It’s 1966, and Kristen (Amber Heard) has been carted off to the eponymous institution for burning down a farmhouse. There, she meets five girls, all around her age: Emily (Mamie Gummer), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Zoey (Laura-Leigh), and Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca). Some are welcoming, others are defensive and all are keeping mum as to who did what to Alice (Mika Boorem), who’s now haunting the halls of the ward … not that any of the committed would be able to convince the staff (led by Jared Harris) that that’s actually the case.

That last hurdle is just about the only thing that could stand to differentiate The Ward from countless other unfinished-business mysteries, but when the staff is barely there to begin with, their skepticism is difficult to establish. These orderlies are as generically menacing as ever, what with their straitjackets and hypodermic needles and electroshock treatments, while Harris’ psychiatrist tries to remain concerned about Kristen’s case.

But in Kristen’s case, she wants to escape, wants to protect, wants to get to the bottom of things. Heard shoots for steely-eyed determination here, but her pouty sense of stoicism doesn’t offer much in terms of vulnerability or audience investment. From there, the ensemble’s performances are even more greatly reduced to their respective archetypes: Gummer’s the overly mannered flaky one, Panabaker’s the glaring defensive one, Fonseca’s nice enough to avoid conflict, and Laura-Leigh’s infantile to the point of irritation. An argument could be made after the fact for why Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s screenplay adheres to such singular characteristics, but in the moment, the performances are often confined by their slasher-shallow roles.

As for Carpenter, well, he shoots the film dutifully, sometimes handsomely, and Washington’s Eastern State Hospital meets him halfway in terms of setting the mood. It doesn’t help matters that the menacing ghost bears a strong resemblance to the J-horror films (and remakes) of late, all long, black, wet hair and rotting flesh, or that the director often opts for obvious jolt beats between repetitive death scenes, more often than not involving a hand appearing where it ought not to. The film’s few gruesome moments involving therapy techniques turned fatal are viscerally effective, but the aforementioned lack of emotional investment makes it harder to care about who’s getting picked off and why over how. And then there’s the matter of the ending, a revelation that should prove frustratingly familiar to any fan of psychological thrillers. To say any more about it wouldn’t be cricket, but still: come on, guys.

For a movie in which certain individuals are coping with split personalities, it’d be nice if the film itself had at least one to call its own. Take John Carpenter’s name off the title, and The Ward is as generic and workmanlike as they come; leave it on, and it becomes disappointingly so.

The Ward is currently in limited release and also available on demand.

Grade: D+