“Why am I here?”
Considering Michael and Shawn Rasmussen wrote The Ward, I think it is a little misleading to preempt the title with its director’s name. To say it is John Carpenter’s The Ward makes audiences believe they’ve been transported to the heyday of his B-movie magnificence of the 70s and 80s. Back then this auteur was a maestro of genre-fare, reinventing the horror with Halloween and adding his own personal flair to actioners such as Escape from New York. Recently, however, one can’t say he’s been as iconic as that long-ago era. He’s languished through some ill-received work and even turned his back on features for almost a decade while producing his “Masters of Horror” series. I’m not quite sure what he saw in the Rasmussens’ script to go back behind the camera, but whatever it was wasn’t enough to make it a success.
It’s hard to describe exactly what makes The Ward unoriginal without exposing its central mystery. Setting the film inside a mental institution ruins the reveal early on anyway, but I don’t want to be the one you blame for figuring it out. Let’s just say there are plenty others of its ilk through the long and winding road of cinema more worthy of your time. That’s not to say this entry is completely worthless—it isn’t. I actually enjoyed a few performances as well as the darkness shrouding events onscreen. Had it been released before 2003—the year my last favorite of its kind came to theatres—I might have even praised its originality. Unfortunately, having that other film in the back of my mind only makes this one seem like a rip-off. At least my nameless precursor took place in the outside world to hide its true intentions.
I’ll give it kudos for starting abstractly at least. The opening scene is of a young woman named Tammy, scared out of her mind. Screaming in the middle of the night as she senses something outside her door, the closely cropped frame of her feet hanging above the floor and the snap of her neck crackling through the air sets a nice tone for what’s to come. It may be somewhat odd to cut from that darkness to the bright lights of a woodland chase, but throwing Kristen (Amber Heard) at us without warning is effective. Racing through the trees to an old abandoned farmhouse in order to set it ablaze, there is relief in her face as she falls to her knees from the destructive catharsis the act brings. The policemen trailing closely behind scoop her up and transport her to the asylum, this new environment steeped in rules and regulations hopefully able to discover why.
The true terror commences behind lock and key. Starting off tamely with Kristen’s blanket mysteriously finding its way under her bed, the subtlety plants the seeds of an intruder into her head. The flimsy act is far from the sort of horrific deeds necessary to make her kick and scream for help. Instead she plays it pretty cool: daily pills are spit up and tossed into her pillowcase, the wheels in her head spin at every opportunity for escape, and a familiarization period with her fellow inmates starts to hopefully find details that may shed light onto her predicament. Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) seems nice enough—genial and helpful to a fault—but the cryptic answer to her query about why she is there earns nothing more than a, “that’s what we hope to find out together”. It’s a statement that only helps decipher the film’s hidden agenda more.
None of the other girls labeled insane and trapped beside her should be considered anything less than important. Each one is a uniquely crafted piece to the puzzle as well as fodder for early exits at the hands of the ghoulishly decomposed creature haunting them in the shadows. Sarah (Danielle Panabaker) is the prissy one, constantly attempting to seduce the head guard (D.R. Anderson’s Roy) and act more important than she is; Zoey (Laura-Leigh) is the child-like innocent, forever clutching her stuffed rabbit with fright a constant fixture in her demeanor; Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca) is the ‘normal’ one, sketching in her notebook and doing the best to help Kristen assimilate into her new home; and Emily (Mamie Gummer) is the kook, fearlessly wearing her lack of social skill or decency on her sleeve. By far the best of the bunch, Gummer is a riot in the light moments and a force in the dark. A bit of her mother (Meryl Streep) may have rubbed off after all.
The film itself then continues on a series of escape attempts and disappearances of the girls. Kristen takes it upon herself to get out while she still can, willingly offering assistance to whomever is still alive. Watching her get chased around by Roy and Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney) gets old quick, however, the enjoyment of a good kill my only treat as I waited for the obvious conclusion to reveal itself. The use of lobotomy instruments and scalpels for the murders gets the job done without being overly flashy; the immense strength of the ‘monster’ throwing Heard around like a rag doll goes a bit too far. But you learn to be patient, hoping the exposed twist will be handled deftly as the atmospheric tone of the whole lulls us into thinking. Sadly the Rasmussens decided to beat us over the head with it instead, walking us through the ‘clues’ we’ve known since the beginning as though laughing at how they tricked us. They did not and unfortunately that fact makes an above-average production into merely an average film.