Film Review: John Carpenter's The Ward

Genre veteran John Carpenter’s sleekly professional ghost story is well-acted and directed but sadly derivative. Horror fans have seen it all before.
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Set for no apparent reason in 1966, The Ward begins with a distraught young woman (Amber Heard) setting fire to an abandoned farmhouse. The police deliver her to nearby North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, where she identifies herself as Kristen and is placed in a special-care ward whose patients are all troubled young women her age with a DSM IV index’s worth of problems. Sarah (Danielle Panabaker, of the Friday the 13th and Crazies remakes) is a sly nymphomanic; Zoey (Laura-Leigh) has retreated into childlike behavior to escape some unknown trauma; Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca) is a talented artist whose inability to pick up on social cues has made her an outcast; and angry, volatile Emily (Mamie Gummer) lives to stir up trouble.

The vaguely creepy Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) takes a personal interest in each, but no one on the ward ever seems to get better—they just vanish, one by one. And then there’s Alice, she-who-must-not-be-named. Kristen quickly figures out that she was once a patient—in fact, to judge by the broken name bracelet under her bed, Kristen now has her room—and is somehow the key to all the spooky goings-on. But is Alice a ghost? An escaped but cunning lunatic drawn inexorably to the hospital where she was confined? The sad product of some ghastly experimental treatment? Genre regulars stand a good chance of cracking the puzzle long before the movie’s big reveal.

Carpenter has always been a fine craftsman: He knows how to set up a scare, stage an action sequence and make a cliché as hoary as that damned cat that’s always exploding out of some inky shadow with a nerve-scraping “me-owwwwwww” play as though you were seeing it for the first time. But his material rarely lives up to his technique, and The Ward is no exception. Written by the fledgling team of Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, brothers whose only previous produced credit was the low-profile 1995 thriller Long Distance, The Ward draws heavily on familiar genre situations and set-ups, and (possible spoiler!) owes a particular debt to Identity (2003). The best directors have a bad-movie skeleton or two in the closet, but Carpenter has more than his share. Given that The Ward is his first project in a decade, it’s hard not to conclude that the master of horror has simply lost his touch.