Psychiatric Wards. Mental Asylums. Institutions. Call them what you will – they have been the ideal vehicle for countless films and books over the years as the perfect playground for the horror genre to stretch its wings. With outings like Gothika, Session 9, and major studio releases like The Butterfly Effect setting a benchmark, the trick now is to try and dig something new out of the sand. Currently in vogue with directors is using the human mind like a stunning chess board or Russian Doll piece (Shutter Island, Identity), where layers can be stripped away and revelations granted with each subsequent piece removed. Here, legendary director John Carpenter has tasked himself with adding something new to the fray.
Oregon, 1966: After setting fire to an abandoned farmhouse, Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed to the North Bend Psychiatric Ward. She has a tenuous grasp on anything except her name … although remains confident in her unwavering sanity. At first the lack of details here are frustrating, but we keep watching because of the sheer uncertainty of it all. Slowly, Kristen is introduced to her fellow inmates: an all female clique of misfits and mavericks who give off subtle clues pertaining to Kristen’s predecessor and the ward’s history of a haunting. Throw in an ominous, unlikable nurse with a penchant for needles and a cryptic but likable Doctor and suddenly everything’s on the plate for a workable thriller.
The drawbacks? There are many - most notably the clunky, unrealistic dialogue and script shortcomings. No matter how much energy is vested in trying to create something epic here, at its core the plot fable is nothing more intricate than a stand-alone episode of Supernatural. This is old school horror (as testified by Carpenter himself), but as much as we pine for that yesteryear the sad fact is the world has ultimately moved on. In this era, snaring the attention of the collective tribe and keeping it there requires a lot more than merely paying homage to the thrillers of old. That said, this is still a grand step up from a film like Vampires: the musical score itself is a beautiful, child-like drone reminiscent of films like the original The Amityville Horror. Key jump moments are prevalent and accomplished with great effect. The entire hospital is mined like a character itself, with slick cameras speeding through the corridors and dowdy colors being used to reflect the chrome world of an asylum.
After a lengthy delay of over a decade in celluloid John Carpenter returns to the genre he helped fashion and create. With a hit and miss ratio in latter years that has produced ambiguous results (milestones like In the Mouth of Madness but also fatally flawed outings like Ghosts of Mars), this is a bittersweet homecoming and one eagerly awaited by those that have traversed his career since the very beginning. If one goes into this with expectations that the man still has something groundbreaking to say - you will be sorely disappointed. But overall The Ward, for all its shortcomings, can still act as a worthy piece of Saturday-matinee entertainment.