Horror fans are odd beings. We cling to our director's way after their prime has passed. How else can you explain the fact Tobe Hooper still gets noticed? Which is why, after a ten year absence, we all got excited when reading that John Carpenter was finally making a new movie. I personally found myself a bit unsure since his last effort, Ghosts of Mars, was turgid at best and he really hasn't made anything worth noting (in my eyes, anyway) since They Live in 1988. Then, after watching the trailer, I found myself wary since it looked like your typical J-horror inspired flick. Which makes me glad to report that, while this isn't a glorious return to form and does have its problems, it's still a fairly entertaining time that sports good mood and is directed with style by Carpenter - though I probably could've done without the overuse of jump scares and the script is a bit sloppy.
Before the cool credit sequence that features old school photos taken from various mental institutions that shatter in slow-motion like glass, we're introduced to the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital when one of the patients is strangled to death by a strong, deformed hand. It's 1966 and after burning down a nearby farm house, Kristen (Amber Heard) finds herself being admitted to North Bend. She doesn't really remember who she is, or why she did what she did, and soon becomes aware that it might not be the safest place to be.
Between sessions with her odd doctor Stringer (Jared Harris) and run-ins with the staff and fellow patients, she also becomes aware that something evil is lurking in the (usually) deserted halls of North Bend. It looks like the undead zombie/ghost of one of the former inmates refuses to go peacefully and starts hunting down those unlucky enough to be living in "the ward". This gives Carpenter the chance to stage a few too many "boo!" moments while mixing the gloomy atmosphere of the sterile hallways with some old fashioned whimsy (like when the girls playfully dance to a record only for it to be cut short by a lightning storm) and a few generally pleasing moments of bloodshed. Then along comes a twist ending that, while not completely successful, isn't a complete wash.
I've always thought that asylum's are the ideal setting for everything horror. It worked to some degree in the third Nightmare on Elm Street flick and the most recent season of "American Horror Story" definitely used it to its advantage. There's just something compelling to me about how the legal/medical systems all those years ago used barbaric, unproven methods to deal with those society have decided are mentally unstable. The levels of abuse and neglect are just mind-blowing. Writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen use some of these treatments (shock therapy, spikes) as set pieces and do an okay job filling their script with eccentric characters, but I just found the structure to be a bit unfocused at times and I kept wondering just why everyone is thrown in such a large area when there's only six patients and three staff - if they'd of put them in a smaller space it would've been much more claustrophobic.
In the lead Heard doesn't do too badly but she's constantly being overshadowed by her co-stars. Specifically, Mamie Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep), who steals a few scenes as the ward's nuttiest inmate Emily. Harris is also decently imposing and I liked Susanna Burney's turn as the strict nurse Lundt even if she could've been given more to do. I also enjoyed Lyndsy ("How I Met Your Mother") Fonseca's performance as the arty, nerdy Iris.
The Ward isn't going to restore your faith in Carpenter. His episodes in the "Masters of Horror" series are closer to his former self, but there's enough of his style here to keep you watching even when the script is stumbling about. There are some good ideas within but it just doesn't hang together for the entire 89 minutes. I find myself indifferent overall, but I'm still glad he got the opportunity to make another film after the disastrous Ghosts of Mars. And be sure to check out this LINK for more fascinating history of asylums. (Chris Hartley, 5/15/13)
Directed By: John Carpenter.
Written By: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen.
Starring: Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh.