“The Ward” has all the hallmarks of the genre that its director, John Carpenter, once executed to a fault: Strong female characters facing off against abnormal threats, ghastly circumstances stemming from murky backstories and action set within a single, claustrophobic environment. While familiar in terms of content, however, “The Ward” succeeds mainly as a checklist that keeps it consistent with Carpenter’s nearly forty years of work. It has none of the smart genre appeal that put him on the map, instead resembling a desperate knock-off by someone with far less talent. Carpenter either lost his groove or the will to use it.
Set in North Bend, Oregon in 1966, “The Ward” takes place in a naturally ominous psychiatric hospital, where teen amnesiac Kristen (Amber Heard) faces off against an inquisitive shrink (Jard Harris) after she inexplicably burns down a barn. Joined by a quartet of inmates, she slowly becomes aware a ghostly figure stalking the ward at night. As she struggles to recall her past, Kristen pesters the other young girls incarcerated along with her for details about the identity of the phantom presence knocking them off in grisly fashion on at a time.
Suffering from trite things-go-bump-in-the-night scares and uninspired hints at Kristen’s psychological trauma, “The Ward” never develops a solid foundation for its plot, which has the outline of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next” and the character types of “Sucker Punch,” without the flashy effects showcase of the latter or the deeper human element of the former. As a result, the restricted setting for “The Ward” provides a metaphor for its own failings: The movie is locked in an unsatisfactory state and never manages to break out.
This is the first feature-length production from Carpenter in his sixties. (Outside of some brief TV work, his last effort was the poorly-received studio effort “Ghosts of Mars,” which hit theaters just before 9/11.) Maybe it’s a cry for help. In his early years, Carpenter displayed the ability to deliver swift (and often profoundly spooky) entertainment while still keeping a firm handle on story, character and–most importantly–purpose. “Halloween” and “The Fog” deliver the scares, but they’re also effective morality tales about the pratfalls of neglecting outsiders.
“The Ward” deals with that idea as well, but in an entirely ineffectual fashion. The screenplay by newcomers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen is a clean, basic rip-off effort, although it may have struck Carpenter as just simple enough to let him return to his roots: All of Carpenter’s seventies movies were shot on the cheap, and they reflect the height of his creativity. The studio-funded “Escape from New York” and “Starman” both display Carpenter’s ability to work within commercial constraints, but they weren’t groundbreaking achievements.
Carpenter hit a rough patch in the nineties from which he never fully recovered. “The Ward,” however, signifies a greater disappointment: Not a tragic failure, but rather a continually underwhelming formulaic indulgence. Worse than its humorless, dialogue (how many times does Kristen have to beg someone to tell her what’s going on?), the movie lacks the clever satiric ingredients that extended Carpenter’s appeal beyond hardcore horror fans and brought him widespread critical acclaim. From his marvelously witty 1974 sci-fi pastiche “Dark Star” and beyond, Carpenter demonstrated a sharp disdain for institutional dysfunction, portraying the messier aspects of society with caustic wit.
“The Ward” also involves organizational failure, but solely in a superficial fashion. When Kristen bellows “This is not a game!” it comes to symbolize how Carpenter has missed his chance to play around. As the ghost continuing its killing spree, the story just wilts, slowly coming apart until the annoyingly derivative big reveal. The backbone of his best movies has been fool-proof storytelling, and he could probably still pull it off with a better script.
The again, it’s not exactly a complete misfire: The dialogue-free opening, and a chase sequence set inside an air vent, show that he can still generate creepy uncertainty and prolonged suspense. If that’s the case, however, he’s not trying hard enough. There was a time when Carpenter showed mastery of his chosen medium on every level–his theme to the original “Assault on Precinct 13” is better than anything in “The Ward”–and it’s hard to imagine that he has lost that skill.
With its eventual shift from asylum ghost story to epistemological thriller, “The Ward” borrows a page from Martin Scorsese’s widely misunderstood “Shutter Island” (Carpenter has admitted as much in interviews). But whereas Scorsese harkened back to the likes of classic Hollywood scare master Val Lewton with an unnerving atmospheric drama, Carpenter harkens back to his own better days. If he just wanted the exercise, then he needs to work out more often.
criticWIRE grade: D+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Already on VOD, the movie will most likely reach horror fans through ancillary markets, but has very limited prospects in theatrical release.
“The Ward” opens July in New York, Los Angeles, and top cities nationwide.