Although no one is quite sure why, John Carpenter hadn't directed a movie for 10 years until The Ward, with his last film being the 2001 sci-fi/horror tale Ghosts of Mars. A break of that magnitude isn't incredibly out of the ordinary. That George Lucas guy had a 22-year break between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, although he was busy building his empire as a producer and toy-slinger. Aside from directing a few episodes of Masters of Horror and two producing credits, John Carpenter has been all but absent from filmdom over the past decade. While it is nice to have one of the true masters of horror back in the cinematic landscape, The Ward is a solid return, but not one without its flaws.
The story opens up with a highly kinetic sequence involving Kristen (Amber Heard), running frantically through the woods from unknown pursuers. She finally arrives at a charming white house nestled in the woods... which she proceeds to set ablaze, for reasons even she doesn't seem to know. She finds herself at an eerie mental institution, in a special wing known only as The Ward. There are only four other residents of The Ward - Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), the too-cool-for-school patient who seems more smug than insane, Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), the sweet, charming patient who doesn't seem to possess an evil bone in her body, Emily (Mamie Gummer), the unhinged patient who definitely seems to belong there, and Zoey (Laura-Leigh), the traumatized patient who rarely speaks and is sucking on her thumb most of the time. Compared to these four, Kristen seems like the prom queen, but despite insisting that she is not insane, The Ward is her new home... for the time being. It doesn't take long for Kristen to realize that something just is not right in The Ward. She keeps hearing bizarre voices and sounds in the middle of the night and her inquiries about the last girl who stayed there go unanswered, both by the girls and primary psychiatrist, Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris). When the girls start to disappear one by one, Kristen hatches a plan to break out of The Ward for good.
We get a solid main cast here with nice performances from the main girls Amber Heard, Danielle Panabaker, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mamie Gummer, and Laura-Leigh. It's a great mix of characters and performances, some subtle, some not so much, but all with a specific purpose that works quite nicely for the story. Danielle Panabaker goes against type here, playing the bitchy Sarah with a nice flair, as opposed to the wholesome characters she normally plays. Lyndsy Fonseca plays the innocent girl-next-door Iris, although she gives us just enough hints that there is something darker beneath that rosy exterior. Mamie Gummer is a lot of fun to watch as the bat-sh*t nutso Emily, who also hints at a deep-seated fear within her. Laura-Leigh makes her feature film debut as Zoey, and while she literally doesn't have much to say in The Ward, she delivers a believable and quite compelling performance, which brings us to Amber Heard. I have always enjoyed her work, and the diverse choices in the roles she goes after. She can play the beautiful love interest, the ass-kicking hellraiser and practically anything in between, which is where her character Kristen falls. Amber delivers another fine, gritty performance, proving once again she is of a rare breed of younger leading ladies who surely isn't afraid to get her hands dirty, both literally and figuratively, which is something I really respect. I find it hard to say anything bad about Jared Harris, ever, and this is no exception, although I would have liked to see either more of him, or have him portray a character which is more fleshed out than a cookie-cutter doctor we have seen countless times before.
In many ways, John Carpenter returns with The Ward like he never missed a beat, with some genuine thrills and great work with the actors. He sets a terrific mood and tone in this hospital (which was shot in an actual Eastern Washington mental facility), but, for all of nice work in The Ward, a big chunk of the script nearly ruined the whole movie for me. It's not even the "crazy stuff happening in an insane asylum" motif that bugged me. Yes, we have seen that premise countless times before, but Carpenter finds a way to make it work, in his own way. However, the ending is just so blatantly unoriginal, copping from two great movies from the past 10 years (sorry, no more hints besides that), it left such a bad taste in my mouth. Carpenter didn't write The Ward, with screenplay credit/blame falling on Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, even though they do bring a few elements back full circle which I liked. Still, astute viewers will likely be able to see this ending coming miles away, since the subtle hints they drop aren't quite as subtle as they probably thought.
When you balance everything out equally, The Ward is a solid thriller with a fine cast, that takes you on a decent journey for most of the movie, but falters badly at the finish line. I sincerely hope it doesn't take John Carpenter another 10 years to make a horror movie, because he still has the directing chops. I just hope he has a better script, or at least a better ending, next time.