Amber Heard makes mental patients sexy in John Carpenter's latest, "The Ward," a sometimes campy, sometimes scary, but mostly soporific new horror flick. And while Carpenter isn't merely rehashing his own bag of tricks, for once, he does appear to be pickpocketing other directors instead.
Remember those surprise twists in "Shutter Island"? Get ready for them not to shock you this time.
Heard stars as Kristen, an orphan found by police standing in front of a flaming farmhouse. She is admitted into the local mental hospital where she meets Emily, the sad-clowny patient (Mamie Gummer); Sarah, the sassy brunette (Danielle Panabaker); Iris, the regressive child-like one (Lyndsy Fonseca); and regressive, scared, child-like Zoey (Laura-Leigh).
Something, (a ghost, a patient, an orderly?) is murdering the girls one by one, and Kristen aims to find out what it is. She skips her medication and starts searching for answers, only to discover that she too is being targeted.
Not only is Kristen a thoroughly unreliable narrator, but Amber Heard looks like a psych patient the way Charlize Theron resembled a coal miner in "North Country." Despite being miscast, Heard approaches her role with what seems like a default-heroic stance -- which would be great if she were playing a police captain, a ship commander, or a camp counselor, but doesn't quite work for a mental patient with amnesia.
Carpenter has given us indelible B-movie classics like "Assault on Precinct 13," "Halloween," "Escape from New York," and "The Thing," and he's at his best presenting larger than life characters and situations -- particularly when the actors shut up and the action takes over.
"The Ward" opens promisingly with a memorable credit sequence followed by a long, wordless narrative montage that sets the tone and lays down the story. It's all downhill from there, however, as leaden dialogue scenes follow, intercut with unimaginative scares.
You'd never guess that this was the same director who, in "Halloween," brilliantly used shadow and off-camera space. This time around, if a victim is frightfully staring screen-right while backing away to the left, you can bet the farm they'll back into their attacker. Carpenter delivers this exact shot at least three times in the movie, making the unpredictable predictable.
The director's strong suits play weakly here, and his weak suits, well... His work with this ensemble of young women under duress plays with all the conviction of an acting workshop at the Playboy Mansion. Performers float rudderlessly through scenes, like they're in early rehearsals, struggling to find a rhythm.
Carpenter shouldn't bear all of the blame here: Apparently, no one told relative newcomers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen that a character-driven piece requires characters, much less a plot. Their script delivers a fine twist in the end which, had it been properly set up and executed, might have made "The Ward" worth seeing. Instead, what should be an earth-shattering reveal lands with a toneless thud.
"The Ward" has been disappointing Carpenter admirers on VOD for over a month now. In August, it will disappoint on DVD and Blu-Ray. If you prefer your disappointment the old-fashioned way -- with overpriced popcorn, surrounded by other disappointed fans in the dark -- catch it in theaters while you can.