#13 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
You know, I was expecting far worse. The little I’ve heard of Carpenter’s last feature film as a director, The Ward, was outright bad, and the IMDb rating is not kind. I was fully prepared to be bored stiff for 88 minutes, but Carpenter actually produced something halfway decent here. It’s fine, a couple of small decisions away from being good, and not near the top of his body of work. However, I’ve seen other directors go out far worse than this, which is a nice feeling after the likes of Ghosts of Mars. I wonder if he had made this in 1998 instead of Vampires, gong consciously smaller in scale and scope instead of trying for another large action film after Escape from L.A., would Carpenter have been so quickly burned out in the early 2000s? We’ll never know, but I know the way I would guess.
The film begins with a girl, Kristen (noted pooper Amber Heard), running through the countryside in the late 60s and setting fire to a farmhouse before getting picked up by the police and carted off to a psychiatric ward run by Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris). Things are off in the ward from the beginning. The orderlies who drag Kristen in erase another name from the board outside her room before they write hers and drag her inside. Her blanket falls off of her in the middle of the night and ends up tucked firmly underneath her bed, along with the remnants of a bracelet that’s not hers. She sees figures outside the window in her door.
The next day, she encounters the other four girls in the ward. There’s Emily (Mamie Gummer), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Zoey (Laura-Leigh), and Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca). They’re all different kinds of crazy like Emily being the most overt with occasional inane babble and biting people and Zoey being completely reserved to the point where she dresses like a little girl and clings desperately to a stuffed bunny.
I like the psych ward subgenre of horror movies, but they are very prone to turning into boring hang outs when done poorly. For all my limited defense of this film, the middle section is easily its weakest as we end up getting a series of scenes of the girls literally just hanging out. There’s talk of Kristen wanting to escape, but ultimately she’s just sitting in a common room with four other girls talking. Not every scene in every movie needs to push the plot forward, but the movie hamstrung itself with a decision (that gets revealed late) that sort of justifies the thinness of the characters here. It’s still odd that we get these moments where characters aren’t really allowed to rise above their thin writing in scenes designed to do just that. I mean, there’s a scene where one of the girls just starts playing music and they dance. It comes out of nowhere. I have no idea what it’s supposed to do, and it just adds to this meandering feeling of nothing in the middle of the film.
The other girls start disappearing though, and that is what helps provide the narrative momentum of the movie’s second half. First is Iris, convinced that she’s going to be released by Dr. Stringer, and suddenly attacked by a mysterious, decrepit figure in the night, and murdered rather horribly. Dr. Stringer doesn’t seem concerned, though, and I thought it was just an oversight of the film. In retrospect it makes sense, though. Determined to unravel the mystery of the ghost she keeps seeing, the missing girls, and how to get out, Kristen takes Emily out at night, trying to figure something out about what’s going on and possibly a way out (characters having a goal and trying to accomplish it is satisfying, you know?).
More girls disappear, and Dr. Stringer just keeps on being unhelpful to the plight, and then we get the reveal. It’s not the most unexpected thing in the world, but it does its job of recasting everything that came before well enough, making the lack of characterization reasonable. It’s not that the girls shouldn’t have been fleshed out, but that it was done in a conscious effort to keep the twist from being revealed. It’s artificial, but it never really feels like it. It just feels thin, which isn’t really good, but it’s less frustrating than the movie creating a bunch of nonsense that needs to get dismissed completely by the ending.
There are horror thrills that dominate the final act, and they work quite well. It’s solidly made and effective in that way. Jared Harris is always a joy to watch as he eschews the cliché of the psych ward doctor with dangerous secrets easily. Amber Heard (noted pooper) is fine as the anchor for the psychological horror, reaching the limits of her range and going no further. The other girls are all fine as well, filling their roles naturally. This was Carpenter really rediscovering his craft at the feature film length and doing a pretty decent job of it. It feels like a Carpenter film, and it’s pretty okay. It could have used a rewrite to help things along, but it’s honestly better than its reputation.