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The Ward (2011)

Things That Go 'Zzzzzzz' in the Night

Pop Quiz: Police apprehend a beautiful, disturbed young woman after she sets a farmhouse on fire. They lock her up in a mental institution, where she forms a tentative bond with four other girls--all of whom believe they're being stalked by a ghost. Which of the following films renders John Carpenter's The Ward an almost perfect waste of time?

A. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

B. Girl, Interrupted

C. Sucker Punch

D. Identity

E. All of the Above

I invite anyone who answered "A", "B", "C", or "D" to watch the other films on the list and then come back to this review.

It would be easy to pin The Ward's failure on Carpenter's pot haze or screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen's phenomenal luck in convincing five (!) production companies to back a plot that most people in America have seen at least twice. But I place all responsibility at the feet of star Amber Heard.

Not that she's a bad actress--on the contrary, she's one of my favorite, most versatile performers. The fact that you likely have no idea who I'm talking about proves my point about this film. The Ward is another in the long line of doomed projects that, in the last four years or so, were supposed to launch Heard's career into space. From All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (a terrific slasher movie that never saw a U.S. release) to Drive Angry (a colossal flop that should never have been released anywhere) to NBC's The Playboy Club, Heard has become the 21st Century's Ted McGinley*.

Whether it's an actual curse or just phenomenally bad judgment on her part, Heard consistently chooses roles that do little to showcase her chops. Take Kristen, her character in this film, for example. Had The Ward come out in 1998, Heard might have made a bigger splash as the most stable of the crazy girls, fighting to escape the creepy asylum. But we've seen this all before, and the only fun one can derive from watching the nutty protagonists is similar to that of watching Bond villains--that is, asking what affectation or weird characteristic will set them apart from each other?

We meet Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), who likes to draw. Zoey (Laura-Leigh) thinks she's five years old. Emily (Mamie Gummer) is the psycho tomboy. And Sarah (Danielle Panabaker) is the hot girl who knows it. One of them has glasses, one holds a teddy bear that belonged to a former resident. They all die in disturbing ways. If that sounds really spoiler-ish, please refer to option "D" in the opening quiz.

It's okay. No need to apologize.

Like most movies and TV shows that take place in mental hospitals, the girls are overseen by a sour-faced head nurse (Susanna Burney) and an oafish orderly (D.R. Anderson). The writers score minor points by not making the orderly a pervert, bully, or rapist. There's also a concerned doctor named Stringer (Jared Harris), who tries to break through using hypnosis, electroshock, and experimental drugs.

Harris is actually a bright spot in the film; his interview scene with Fonseca is The Ward's strongest three minutes, and it gave me hope that things would pick up. Sadly, the movie shuffles predictably along to a silly conclusion--but not before making a pretty interesting detour.

In most movies of this kind, a ghost killing a hospital's residents is usually a revenge plot involving mistreatment of the person in life at the hands of the staff. Here, the ghost is one of the ward's former patients who (SPOILER!) was murdered by the other girls. I didn't see that coming; too bad the Rasmussens tack on the multiple-personality angle, ruining what should have been a nasty little finale surprise.

The real shame of this picture is that it's Carpenter's first feature film in nine years. Despite one nifty bit of misdirection in the last scene, The Ward is an utterly generic horror movie. Granted, it was helmed by one of the guys who helped define the genre for modern audiences, but his horror sensibilities seem to have arrested in the early 90s. Tonally, the movie feels flat and by-the-numbers. Given the well-worn nature of the material and the legendary credentials of the director, this should have been a cool, dark spin on a story we thought we already knew--not the exact same story.

Cinematographer Yaron Orbach deserves a lot of credit for glossing over the clichés with some gorgeous imagery, though you could make quite a spirited drinking game out of taking a shot every time the camera slooooowly pushes down a corridor. I should also give props to whoever created the opening credits sequence, which font-loads all of the film's creepiness and provides the only spark of visual invention (too bad Final Destination 5 stole its thunder a few months later).

Okay, so maybe it's not fair to call out Amber Heard as having ruined The Ward. There's enough evidence to suggest it was a dud from the start. But, hey, she gave me something to write about for a few paragraphs, which is more than I can say for the movie.

Head-scratcher: The ghost that terrorizes the hospital looks like many other modern takes on the supernatural dead-girl/monster. Since this movie is set in 1966, I wonder where this image could have come from. This is years before zombies became pop cultural icons, so unless the girls all sat around reading Tales from the Crypt comics, I would think their collective ideas about what ghosts look like would be far less gruesome.

*Look him up.