For longtime horror fans, John Carpenter’s name conjures memories of fluid tracking shots, creepy soundtracks, explosive action, and a masterful evocation of how it feels to be dangerously alone. That’s why it’s such a thrill to see the words “John Carpenter’s The Ward” come up over the opening credits of his first movie in almost a decade, rendered in his signature font. And that’s why it’s so disappointing that the rest of the movie is so damned impersonal.
Amber Heard stars in The Ward as an amnesiac who gets picked up outside of a farmhouse she set ablaze; she’s subsequently taken to a mental institution where she bucks the rules, stirs up her fellow inmates, and tries to get to the bottom of some mysterious disappearances taking place on her ward. The truth of what’s actually happening is moderately clever (though derivative of a lot of other movies), though the main mark in favor of The Ward is the twisted take on conformity by screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen. The movie establishes early that if the characters acknowledge the monsters around them, people think they’re crazy, but if they pretend the monsters aren’t there, they risk getting killed. But there isn’t much beyond that point, besides 90 minutes of women bickering and being chased down corridors by a lurching, ghoulish figure.
Worse, nothing about The Ward’s script or direction has much snap. The dialogue is never witty, the characters are indistinct, the story is set in 1966 for no relevant reason, and the scares are strictly of the “thing jumps loudly out of the shadows” variety. The Ward is competently made, but it’s the wrong kind of “haunting,” rendered pale by the memories of all those corny B-movie premises that Carpenter once invested with real style and passion. What happened to that Carpenter? Did the boogeyman finally catch up to him?