John Carpenter’s The Ward

Amber Heard prays that someone will take her seriously.

(2010) Horror (ARC Entertainment) Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lindsy Fonseca, Jared Harris, Sydney Sweeney, Mika Boorem, D.A. Anderson, Susanna Burney, Sean Cook, Milos Milicevic, Jillian Kramer, Sali Sayler. Directed by John Carpenter

When looking back at the annals of horror movies, some directors stand out; James Whale, Todd Browning and in later years George Romero and David Cronenberg. Into that company, one has to add John Carpenter. The auteur of horror and science fiction classics such as Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live! (1988), it has been ten years since he has directed a feature film. Is this the movie to launch the comeback of one of horror’s masters?

A young woman sets a somewhat isolated farmhouse on fire. She is caught there by the police, who bring the struggling, screaming woman to the North Bend Mental Institution. We discover her name is Kristen (Heard) and she has no memory of how she got to the farmhouse or why she burned it down.

She is assigned to Dr. Stringer (Harris), the urbane Brit who seems to be the only doctor in the Asylum. There’s not much staff there either – Roy (Anderson), a somewhat menacing orderly, Nurse Lundt (Burney) who likely took her education at the Nurse Ratched school of Nursing (note the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reference), and Jimmy (Cook), a kindlier orderly.

Then again, there aren’t many patients. There’s Sara (Panabaker), a somewhat self-centered and looks-oriented young woman who never met a mirror she didn’t like. Zoey (Laura-Leigh) has some pretty serious emotional traumas and deals with them by reverting to childhood. Iris (Fonseca), the friendly bespectacled one who has a sketchbook and draws the things that disturbs her. Finally there’s Emily (Gummer), the strong sort who appears to be the leader of this merry band.

There’s also Alice Hudson (Boorem). Who’s she? Well, apparently she’s a former resident of North Bend who took her leave of this mortal coil in a sudden and not very nice manner. Now her ghost (Kramer) is roaming the halls of North Bend, bumping off the remaining girls in also sudden and not very nice manners. Kristen must figure out a way to escape before she winds up on the grisly list of victims. But who is she really? Why can’t she remember any of her past? And why did she burn down that farmhouse. That is the key to the supernatural goings on at North Bend and a secret she must unlock if she is to survive.

Carpenter has mostly been working in television the past decade and in some ways that absence show. This is a very old school kind of movie in the way the shots are set up; it looks in many ways like an 80s horror film which is unsurprising given Carpenter’s pedigree. This is his first movie with a nearly all-female cast.

He gets some good performances, the most outstanding of which is by Gummer as the erstwhile leader of the group Emily. Gummer looks very much like a young Meryl Streep which makes some sense because she’s her daughter. She has as much as any of the female characters has to work with but in the end she does more with it.

Panabaker and Fonseca also acquit themselves well, Panabaker as the resident flirt, Fonseca as the sensitive girl. They’re essentially disposable cannon fodder for the monster who stalks them. Both of them are attractive women, which helps and both of them are solid professional actresses, which helps them even more. While you could have plugged in the cast of Jersey Shore to these sorts of roles, Fonseca and Panabaker give it the old college try.

Heard is usually a very capable actress but here she seems a little forced. There isn’t a lot of real emotion coming from her, mostly taking us from point A to point B with little examination into the process of getting there. She’s at her best in the opening shots, frightened and not really knowing what she’s doing or why she’s doing it, merely following her instincts. That scene piqued my interest.

Too bad what followed was awfully derivative, even of movies that were filmed concurrently (say hello, Sucker Punch) but for sure of asylum horror movies like Gothika and The House on Haunted Hill. A creature stalks the actors, lurks in shadows, shows signs of being a decrepit corpse and winds up being part of a twist.

That’s what this movie is and to be honest, it doesn’t disgrace itself. It just isn’t the comeback you’d hope for a master of the genre. Romero managed to re-invent himself without losing sight of what got him to the dance – Carpenter hasn’t quite mastered that trick yet. This is very much like the movies he would have made back in 1981. The unfortunate thing is that it’s 2011 and we expected something better.

REASONS TO GO: Well directed by a master craftsman. Some good performances, particularly by Fonseca, Panabaker and Gummer.

REASONS TO STAY: We’ve seen this all before, and better. Heard picks a bad time to give a sub-par performance.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images as well as some violence and the very important obligatory extraneous nude shower scene (although much more nudity is implied than scene).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie by Carpenter not to have been shot in Panavision since his first one, Dark Star.

HOME OR THEATER: Essentially a haunted house horror movie which takes nearly entirely within a mental institution, this will be fine as a home video offering.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Easy A

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