Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

His name is John Carpenter, he’s old, and he comes to this party carrying a suitcase full of cache. On my personal list of say my twenty favorite movies ever, three of those movies belong to John Carpenter. ‘The Thing’, ‘They Live’ and ‘Escape from New York’. Hell, I probably should put ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ on that list. No other director can claim this. Not Steven Spielberg, not James Cameron, not John Woo… only John Freaking Carpenter. The man is a legend and he is one of the few people on the planet Earth I would like to meet someday. So ten years after his last movie ‘Ghosts of Mars’ which some would call his worst movie… like me… though others would place this albatross on ‘Big Trouble in Little China’, definitely not me because I loved that movie… we finally have another John Carpenter film with ‘The Ward’. It’s… mediocre. It’s not a bad film, it’s effective, but it probably could’ve been done by just about any competent horror film director. That makes ‘The Ward’ a little bit of a disappointment.

The Crazy has done got into Kristin (Amber Heard). The year is 1962 and when we first see Kristin she is running through the woods in her nightgown literally burning down the house. Why? Well, Kristin doesn’t really know why and doubts she even did this thing. In fact, Kristin has no idea why she’s even been interned in this looney bin run by one Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) and just wants to go home. Nonetheless, Kristin is shown her new room, one that used to belong to Tammy (Sali Sayler), but Tammy… well… she won’t be needing her room anymore.

Since Kristin is going to be stuck in the loony bin for a while, she might as well meet her nutty colleagues. There’s Emily (Mamie Gummer) who I think is a cutter, there’s Sarah (Danielle Panabaker) who is afflicted with the ‘I’m better looking than all of you combined’ disease, then there’s Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca) who doesn’t seem all that crazy and just draws a lot, and finally there’s Zooey (Laura-Leigh) who nurses a stuffed animal. Now that’s crazy.

Everything’s good, everybody’s relatively happy and crazy but there is a problem. That would be Alice who tends to materialize out of nowhere and cause a ruckus. At first Alice just did annoying stuff like pull the covers off of Kristin while she was trying to get some shuteye, but when Alice, looking like a deformed zombie, tried to choke Kristin to death in the shower, Kristin now knows that something isn’t quite right. We think that at one time Alice, before she got all ugly and stuff, used to be a resident at the Crazy Institute but whatever happened to Alice, the other girls aren’t saying. And even if they did want to talk, pretty soon, one by one, they aren’t going to be capable of saying jack. The pressing question for Kristin, right about this time, is why is Alice messing with her? I mean she didn’t even know Alice. It’s because she’s crazy Kristin, it is kind of what crazy people do, and Alice, as it turns out, is about as crazy as they come, but she does have her reasons.

Probably because of John Carpenter’s experience and skill as a filmmaker, and hopefully not because I’m a John Carpenter apologist, ‘The Ward’ is better than it has any right to be. The story being told is fairly straight forward and rudimentary as we have a collection of unique individuals getting hunted down by a mysterious force, but we do know there has to be more to the story because of Kristin’s various flashbacks to her life before she got locked up. The twist, as it were, was kept well hidden though its revelation did make this story a little less original than it was to begin with, recognizing that it was already run of the mill. I think I just prefer the straightforward concept of a monster killing crazy girls.

The performances were solid with Amber Heard showing plucky resolve as our tough and incredibly resourceful final girl, and I imagine we can credit the director with directing his star towards a very controlled performance where I would’ve expected extreme shrill freaking out, early and often, to be the order of the day. Danielle Panabaker showed in the superior ‘Mr. Brooks’ that she can do adorable crazy about as good as anybody, and she does it well here. Make no mistake about it, ‘The Ward’ is a competently shot, solidly acted, well paced horror thriller.

The thing is that the words ‘competent’ and ‘solid’ can easily be translated into ‘seen it before’ and ‘ultimately forgettable’. Since ‘The Ward’ is a John Carpenter movie and since John Carpenter is one my guys, I already knew the movie would be competent and solid before the first frame rolled. What I was hoping for was something extra. Something subversive. Wicked. Something that made me uncomfortable. Something I didn’t see coming. There are some clever touches in the movie, certain things that you have pay attention to, things that are going on in the periphery that you might miss if you blink or turn your head. But for the most part ‘The Ward’ is a standard horror thriller with a standard twist.

But we are glad to see that Mr. Carpenter has shaken off the shock of whatever the happened to him and Val and Cube during the production of ‘The Ghosts of Mars’, and we are glad that he is back where he belongs, making movies. Remember, a disappointing John Carpenter movie equals a halfway decent regular old movie for an awful lot of film directors out there these days.

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