Psychiatric wards. Mental Asylums. Institutions. Call them what you will – they have been an ideal vehicle for countless mediums over the years; a perfect playground for the horror genre to stretch its wings. With outings such as 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. What seems currently in vogue: using the human mind as a stunning chess board or Russian Doll piece (Shutter Island, Identity), where metaphor's can be stripped away and revelations granted with each successive piece removed. Here, legendary director John Carpenter has tasked himself with adding something new to the sub-genre.
Oregon, 1966: After setting fire to an abandoned farmhouse, Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed to the North Bend Psychiatric Ward. Kristen has a tenuous grasp on anything except her name … although remains confident in her unwavering sanity. At first the lack of details here can be frustrating, but we are invested because of the sheer uncertainty of it all. Slowly, Kristen is introduced to her fellow inmates: an all female clique of misfits and mavericks, each of them giving off subtle clues pertaining to Kristen’s predecessor and the ward’s haunting history. Throw in an ominous, unlikable nurse with a penchant for needles (and a cryptic yet likable Doctor), and swiftly everything’s on the plate for a workable thriller.
The drawbacks? There are many ... most notably The Ward's clunky, unrealistic dialogue and script shortcomings. No matter how much energy is vested in trying to create something epic here, at its core the narrative is no more ambitious than a stand-alone episode of Supernatural. While this is an attempt at old school horror (as testified by Carpenter himself), snaring the attention of the collective tribe requires a lot more than paying homage to the thrillers of old. That said, this is still a grand step up from a film like Vampires; Mark Kilian's musical score is a beautiful, child-like drone reminiscent of The Amityville Horror. The hospital itself is beautifully mined like a character, with slick camera rigging speeding through corridors and dowdy colors being used to reflect the chrome world of an asylum.
After a lengthy delay of over a decade, John Carpenter returns to the genre he helped fashion and create. With a hit and miss ratio in latter years yielding ambiguous results (milestones like In the Mouth of Madness but fatally flawed outings like Ghosts of Mars), this is a bittersweet homecoming and one eagerly awaited by those who have traversed his career since the very beginning. If one goes into this with expectations Carpenter still has something groundbreaking to say, you might come away disappointed. But overall The Ward, for all its shortcomings, can still act as a worthy piece of Saturday-matinee entertainment.