The Ward (2010)
Rated R for violence and disturbing images
A common question that's been asked by a lot of horror fans over the years is "what the hell happened to most of the classic directors?" Folks like Tobe Hooper, George Romero, Dario Argento, and today's subject John Carpenter have seen the quality of their output take a very noticeable slide since their heyday in the '70s and '80s. Gone are the days when their name on a movie can bring audiences out in droves; now, knowing that they're directing something is usually treated as reason to avoid it, and it's wondered whether or not they even care anymore. This film, billed as Carpenter's comeback after ten years (his previous feature film, Ghosts of Mars, having killed his career outside a pair of Masters of Horror episodes), is indication of this. It's not his worst film by a long shot, but it's mired in mediocrity, treading over all manner of timeworn cliches, with Carpenter bringing little to the table beyond making the film at least look better than other low-budget, B-grade horror flicks.
The story follows Kristen (Amber Heard), a young woman in '60s Oregon who burns down her house and gets locked away in a mental hospital for it. There, she meets Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) and her fellow inmates, a diverse collection of crazies: you've got the vain nympho Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), the free spirit Emily (Mamie Gummer), the childlike Zoey (Laura-Leigh), and the artistic Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca). Before long, Kristen realizes that the place is haunted by the ghost of the girl who used to inhabit her cell, named Alice (of course), who the other inmates had killed for some reason -- and now, she wants to kill them as revenge.
Let me start by saying this: while this film may be scary to someone who's seen very few horror movies in their life, I got little out of it beyond mostly predictable jump scares. Carpenter gets quite a bit of mileage out of the setting (filmed on location in a real mental hospital in Washington state) and directs his cast well enough, but he can only do so much to overcome the terrible script by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen. The asylum and the '60s time period are both little more than window dressing, the film doing little with them, in terms of story, themes, or frights, beyond some golden oldies in the soundtrack and some lobotomy and electroshock therapy scenes. The characters are all one-note asylum movie stereotypes, leaving their actors with little to work with, and while most of them come out alright (though not spectacular by any means), Amber Heard struggles to find anything to latch onto in her important but underwritten lead role. The big twist was obvious and has been done better in the past, but at the same time, little is done to set it up, with the foreshadowing of it in brief flashbacks throughout the film feeling jarring and making no sense without knowing the twist going in. While it isn't as story-breaking as what I saw in The Gallows a few weeks ago, I can recall at least one scene early on in the film that contradicts it.
What little is watchable in this film is mostly due to Carpenter himself, and even then, he feels like he's sleepwalking when one compares this film to his classics. When the script isn't running with constant jump scares, he does manage to get some good dread going here and there, most notably in how he keeps the monster in the shadows for most of the film. One standout scene was when one of the girls is being pushed in a wheelchair by Alice; she looks up, sees Alice pushing her, and screams, while we're watching from Alice's POV left only to wonder what she looks like. And to the credit of the special effects team, she does look quite menacing in both the brief glimpses we get and when we see her in full form towards the end. Unfortunately, Carpenter decided, for whatever reason, to not go against the poor script he was working with, which handles its scares about as well as it handles its plot and characters. All too often, tension is deflated by jump scares that I saw coming more often than not, and which left me groaning rather than screaming.
Score: 2 out of 5
A mediocre comeback that's only worth watching for diehard Carpenter fans. Everyone else is better served watching American Horror Story: Asylum (the last good season of that show if you ask me) or any number of other scary movies set in mental hospitals.