The asylum continues to be a successful setting for thrillers thanks to Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, but veteran horror filmmaker John Carpenter fails to make the best use of his creepy hospital locale in The Ward. Carpenter's first movie in nine years, The Ward made its world premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, and lacks the action of his pulp classic Assault on Precinct 13 or the scares of his best chillers Halloween and Prince of Darkness. Typically, Carpenter thrives on modestly budgeted films like The Ward, but this one comes off as an amateurish misstep due to unoriginal storytelling from fledgling screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen.
The best thing about The Ward is lead Amber Heard, somewhat of a genre queen thanks to her role in the cult favorite All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. Heard claims the strength and charisma of previous Carpenter scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis as well as the icy beauty of a Hitchcock heroine. She does all that Carpenter asks of her and more. Still, the film's all-too-familiar closing scare will leave horror fans disappointed, and Carpenter fans will be surprised the veteran director couldn't squeeze more shocks out of the material.
It's the '60s, and a young woman named Kirsten (Heard) is admitted to the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital after setting an isolated farmhouse ablaze and watching it burn. She shares The Ward with four other young women: flirty Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), soft-spoken Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), outcast Emily (Mamie Gummer) and childlike Zoey (Laua-Leigh) who won't let go of her stuffed bunny. It's these women who tell Kirsten the story of deceased patient Alice Hudson and why her spirit continues to haunt the hospital.
Cameraman Yaron Orbach helps boost the film's overall sense of creepiness with slow tracking shots through hospital corridors, and production designer Paul Peters makes great use of the historic Washington State hospital that serves as North Bend Psychiatric Hospital.
Carpenter remains a veteran screenwriter for hire (The Eyes of Laura Mars, The Resurrection of Bronco Billy) as well the writer of many of his own scripts. It's disappointing that he didn't step in and polish the screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen. There's room for a lot of improvement.
Carpenter has often spoken of his commitment to the RKO tradition of low budget moviemaking and his related aversion to studio blockbusters (though he's made his share). While The Ward has the appearance of a SyFy Original in spots, Carpenter remains a master at getting the most entertainment out of B-movie trappings.
Comparisons to Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor, or to more recent asylum thrillers like Gothika and Brad Anderson's Session 9, are only fair in that the films share similar settings. But the value of The Ward as a theatrical release lies with the reputation of Carpenter as a returning Master of Terror who can remind audiences of the scares they experienced in his past films, like The Fog, Christine and another asylum tale, In the Mouth of Madness.
Hampered by its low budget and a mostly unknown cast, and with critical praise unlikely, The Ward shows limited potential as a wide theatrical release and will likely find its audience via home video and On Demand. Still, the 62-year-old filmmaker has bounced back from bigger setbacks and there's no reason he can't bounce back from The Ward.
Cast: Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Jared Harris, Lyndsy Fonseca
Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen & Shawn Rasmussen
Producers: Peter Block, Doug Mankoff, Mike Marcus, Andrew Spaulding
Rating: R for violence and disturbing images.
Running time: 86 min.
Release date: July 8 ltd.