A 1966-set period piece and deliberatively paced throwback spookshow, The Ward keeps its claws in a viewer, though it never wholly attains the promise of its opening credits. Beautiful and atmospheric representatives of a lost art, the credits themselves show images of madness, including woodcuts and antique lobotomy photos, on shattering panes of glass whose shards float across the screen in slow motion. But more important is the name above the title: The Ward is the first feature film directed by the legendary genre filmmaker John Carpenter in a decade.
Carpenter was hired thanks in part to Amber Heard, lately a neo-grindhouse starlet and this movie’s star. Heard plays Kristen, whose motive for torching a farmhouse at the beginning of The Ward is this puzzle movie’s missing piece. We rejoin apparent pyro Kristen in the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, where the camera restlessly stalks the institutional gray halls. Kristen’s ward is peopled with four other girls about her age, and even before the first of her fellow inmates goes missing, Kristen has a strong urge to escape, be it from the “experimental” treatments of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) and his Nurse Ratched, or the bedraggled ghoul whom Kristen begins to see in flickering corner-of-the-eye visions.
Unlike most of his seminal work, Carpenter has neither a writer nor composer credit on The Ward. But a director credit is still something, and Carpenter does what he’s always done well here: individualizing shorthand personalities in a group under siege. This is Carpenter’s first all-female ensemble, and the inmates are uniformly well-played by Danielle Panabaker (paperback-cover sweater-girl), Lyndsy Fonseca (tart and horn-rimmed), Laura-Leigh (arrested-development case), and Mamie Gummer (good enough to be Meryl Streep’s daughter, which she is). Each of the actresses has a distinct presence, and teases at a backstory—compare this to the interchangeable Suicide Girls in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch loony bin from earlier this year. The group dynamics in The Ward involve the viewer, even if the monster is foam-rubber, the gotchas shopworn, the kills so-so.
Actually, the movie justifies itself solely with the brief moment of the girls all dancing around the rec room to a 45 of the Newbeats’ “Run, Baby, Run.” Such period relics, including the glimpse of Bert I. Gordon’s Tormented on TV, are eccentric and perfect. But while the ’60s nuthouse setting suggests Cuckoo’s Nest or Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, the concept by screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen is of a more recent vintage, involving unreliable subjectivity and psychological rug-pulls. The missing piece ruins the puzzle—but that doesn’t make it time wasted.