The Ward (2011) – Directed by John Carpenter – Starring Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mika Boorem, and Jared Harris.
THE WARD is John Carpenter’s first movie in ten years … and this is where I’m supposed to say something snarky like, “He should have waited another ten if he was going to come back for this. Am I right?”
The truth is, THE WARD isn’t a great movie but it’s a decent movie, and it’s good to have Carpenter back making full-length features. While THE WARD doesn’t rank with his finest efforts, it’s still a solid psychological horror flick about a girl named Kristen (Amber Heard) who gets consigned to a mental ward which is haunted by a ghost named Alice (Mika Boorem).
Kristen burns down a house, gets picked up by the cops, and gets sent to North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, where she meets the other girls in the ward: Artsy Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), Vain Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Protective Emily (Mamie Gummer), and Baby-Like Zoey (Laura Leigh). Kristen gets put in Tammy’s old room, and what we know and she doesn’t is that Tammy was killed by a ghost that we eventually learn is Alice.
While Kristen is on the ward, we’re engaged in trying to watch her escape, in watching Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) do some psychiatric exams, in getting to know the girls, and in watching the ghost start to pick them off one-by-one. All of this is fairly standard fare for a horror flick and while Carpenter films it all with professional aplomb.
But it just doesn’t feel like a Carpenter flick. It feels like any of a 100 directors could have directed this middle sequence. It’s completely solid but there’s none of that great, solid character interaction that makes Carpenter flicks so special. And yet … THE WARD isn’t bad. Carpenter knows how to pace a film and this movie is no exception. I like Kristen’s insistence that she’s not crazy and her determination to get the heck out of this place. Amber Heard is an impressive young actress and she plays Kristen as a well-rounded character who’s strong enough to keep pushing herself to escape and yet not so foolishly strong that she’s not scared out of her mind when she gets taken to electro-shock therapy.
The interaction between the girls and the orderlies and Dr. Stringer and the Alice ghost is pretty good but it’s also largely forgettable.
Things pick up when the girls finally admit to Kristen that the mysterious Alice used to be a patient here but she was really mean to all of them, so they ganged up on her and killed her, and now Alice is out for revenge. It’s a nice twist, muddying up how we think of the girls and how they interact with one another, and it imbues the ghost with a real purpose and motivation for killing these girls.
There’s a second, even better twist coming when we find out that all of these girls are actually the SAME girl: they’re all Alice Hoffman, including Kristen. Kristen has been having these flashes of a little girl tied up in a basement and we discover that girl is Alice. She was kidnapped and abused for 2 months in the house that we saw Kristen burning at the start of the movie, and Alice then splintered her psyche into all these component parts. It’s a cool play on our expectations as an audience; we expect to see a bunch of different types of people in an ensemble cast like this, so we don’t question how each of them seem to be completely different. When Kristen finds out that she’s just one part of a greater whole and has to die for Alice to become whole, I thought it was a pretty good revelation and a pretty good twist that now the ghost that’s been killing the girls is actually the hero. When she kills a girl, it’s because Alice has learned how to integrate that portion of her self back into the whole.
While not a great film and not a signature John Carpenter film, THE WARD is still a solid watch; Carpenter is much better at the character bits than the scary bits and I’m totally fine with that. When I reviewed Drive Angry, I made a big deal about how completely stunningly gorgeous Amber Heard is, but she’s a really good young actress, too. Just like with Drive Angry, she’s better than the material she’s got to work with here, and just like with Drive Angry, Heard’s strength is that she elevates the actors and film around her.