John Carpenter has been dabbling in the film biz for almost 50 years. And to many film-lovers – particularly those with an affinity for horror – he's made some absolute corkers: Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Escape from New York ... and the granddaddy of them all, Halloween. Sadly, like many of his contemporaries he's spent much of the past decade making television. Hollywood didn't seem to want, or know how to use, the talents of great filmmakers such as John Landis, Joe Dante and indeed Carpenter himself. But now he's back with a new big-screen offering that is ... well, it's okay.
Set in 1966, The Ward is a thriller cum ghost story that takes place in a psychiatric hospital. Heard stars as Kristen, who we meet as she's being hauled away by the cops after setting fire to a farmhouse. Safely locked away in an all-female ward of the local asylum, Kirsten soon realises there's a strange presence ... and then the other inmates start to disappear. To discuss the plot in greater depth would probably lead to spoiler territory, so best to leave it at that. The Ward does, however, have a lot in it to like ... and a bit to dislike.
The mainly-female cast is solid. The always-fun-to-watch Heard (and no, it's not just because she's beautiful, but that helps) ably carries the film as the mysterious Kirsten, who finds herself locked away with no memory of her past and no idea why she is there. Fonseca, Panabaker, Gummer and Boorem, too, are all first rate as the inmates with a secret to hide. There's a touch of Girl, Interrupted to proceedings, with just a whiff of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It wouldn't be a proper loony-bin film without the requisite evil (or are they?) nurses – Nurse Lundt (Burney), in particular, channeling Cuckoo's Nurse Ratched. And seeing as this is the 1960s, it would be remiss not to have a scene or two of patients a'twitching and a'writhing on the guerney as they get a dose of shock treatment.
I've always had a soft spot for John Carpenter. Even the films on his CV that aren't quite up to scratch – such as They Live, Christine, Vampires and Ghosts of Mars – aren't complete washouts, and still have moments worth watching; here and there are little touches of genius to be found. The Ward shows that Carpenter has lost none of his flair for directing. He still knows how to handle actors and develop characters, how to make a scene work just so, and how to bring on the scares (although the gore quotient here is rather low). Where much of the fault with The Ward lies is in the script. The story lacks originality; weve seen this tale before, a few too many times for it to be fresh, and some of the dialogue is woeful. It's an entertaining watch (although it does contain the tamest all-girl shower scene ever commited to celluloid), but it's probably a film that will only entice the dedicated Carpenter fan.