Pity the horror director who takes a possessive credit. Rather than announcing the presence of a new work by supposed genre maestros like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, or Clive Barker, the horror-movie possessive title has become something of an albatross, trying to excite fans of artists who arguably peaked a long time ago. New projects so named are now Wes Craven’s Latest Disappointment or Clive Barker’s New Cash-In.
John Carpenter’s The Ward is no kind of cash-in, if only because its theatrical release is more cursory than celebratory. Carpenter, beloved by geeks for Halloween and The Thing, among others, hasn’t made a movie since 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, which pleased neither critics nor fans. Now he returns with a simple story from the thriller playbook: girls in haunted asylum want out.
We’re introduced to the spooky, underpopulated ward of the title when Kristen (Amber Heard) burns down a building and wakes up in a mental hospital. She isn’t sure why she’s there, wants desperately to leave, and finds herself haunted by a ghostly presence. She enlists fellow inmates, including Emily (Mamie Gummer) and the standoffish Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), in her escape attempts. Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), the only major male character, presides over the ward and tries to counsel the girls.
In its broadest outlines, The Ward resembles Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, with all of its fantastical worlds and elaborate craziness stripped away. This is both fortunate and not. Carpenter doesn’t trip over his own ambitions like Snyder, instead shooting with a snappy pace and unfussy eye, composing less faux-iconic but still striking shots of his female ensemble arranged together in the frame. But The Ward might have benefited from a little more style, a little more horror-movie perversity—its substance isn’t quite creepy or persuasive enough on its own.
The thinness of the story provides for some economy, but little mystery or dread. You may guess the final resolution, or some form of it, simply because The Ward doesn’t offer much in the way of alternatives, just as most of its suspense revolves around a few well-timed jump scares and many shots of Heard booking it down the hospital hallways.
Heard lends the rest of the proceedings a measure of toughness and gravity, just as she brought unexpected bite to the B-movie throwback Drive Angry earlier this year. She remains in an enticing netherworld between faceless starlet and full-fledged movie star, a sexy exploitation heroine who paradoxically takes no guff (and, after an often-naked early career, here maintains some modesty, even in an extended shower scene). Carpenter and his screenwriters, Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, don’t offer much backstory or interesting dialogue, but Kristen keeps moving forward, even when she isn’t quite sure what she wants or why she wants it.
Her performance fits the film, which gets by for a time on a kind of old-fashioned charm, at least until the plot starts to collapse from its hokey attempts at psychological weight. These absurdities, too, feel strangely classic. If this was an unearthed B-movie from the ‘60s, or a young filmmaker’s retro debut, it might even attract an appreciative cult.
As Carpenter’s first project in 10 years, though, The Ward is slight. It feels like a drawn-out, somewhat better crafted episode of an anthology series like Masters of Horror, for which Carpenter directed two installments during a dry period. But for the first time in a while, his possessive credit actually feels personal and hard-earned, not like another marketing gimmick. The Ward is minor, but Carpenter owns it.