When you go to a horror movie that's set in a mental institution, you know things aren't going to turn out the way they initially seem.
We are dealing with insane characters here, and the presumption that they provide an unreliable perspective creates a prime opportunity for filmmakers to mess with us, too, and challenge our own sense of perspective.
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"John Carpenter's The Ward"★ ½
Starring: Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker
Directed by: John Carpenter
Other: An Arc Entertainment release. Rated R for violence and disturbing images. 87 minutes.
That's part of the deal -- it's the implicit pact we make upon entering a movie like this.
In theory, it's supposed to be fun.
And so it's no big shocker that the women of "The Ward" may not be exactly who we thought they were. But ... who they end up being is so ludicrous, it might just make you angry, or at least cackle at the brazenness of it all.
The big twist is just part of a stiff and artificial script that even a horror master like John Carpenter -- because this is "John Carpenter's The Ward," after all -- can't overcome. The director of "The Fog," "The Thing," "Christine" and the original "Halloween" hasn't made a feature film in over a decade, and while there is still clearly a sense of craft here and a few decent jumps, this doesn't even come close to rising to the level of his greatest work.
Working from a screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, "The Ward" introduces us to our primary heroine in peril, Kristen (Amber Heard), as she's running through the Oregon woods in nothing but a clingy negligee. It's the late 1960s, and she's on her way to burn down a modest farmhouse.
Once the authorities haul her away, they drag her to an imposing mental hospital (aren't they all?) where she's locked up in a remote ward with a handful of other young women (Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Lyndsy Fonseca and Laura-Leigh). There's a "Girl, Interrupted" vibe in their dynamic that's inescapable as they feel each other out -- first with surly skepticism, but eventually with a clingy co-dependence as they come to realize they all need each other.
(There are also shadings of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in the presence of a nurse who's cartoonishly cruel).
But eventually, Kristen's fellow patients get taken out -- one by one, of course -- by a creepy creature who lurks in the hallways at night. She looks vaguely young and female but is actually ... a ghost?
A hideous, homicidal hag who just hasn't showered in a while?
Either way, she's angry, and she's managed to figure out the hospital's electroshock therapy and lobotomy tools.
The kills aren't terribly suspenseful or dramatically staged, and they quickly grow repetitive.
Worst of all, they're not particularly scary.
Heard, as the last women standing (no spoiler there, guys -- everything else is by the numbers) is game for all the physical demands of the role, but she never feels like a complete person.
In retrospect, maybe that was intentional. In the moment, though, it's a bit of a bore.