Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Jared Harris, D.R. Anderson. (2011, R, 88 min.)
What are we to make of John Carpenter's return to the big screen after a 10-year hiatus? On one hand, it's inarguably great to have the writer/director behind Michael Myers, Snake Plissken, and the freakily prescient They Live back behind the lens. It has, indeed, been a full decade since the choppy, misfiring Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter's last film (not counting the two hourlong episodes he made for Starz's Masters of Horror series). So yeah, the great man is welcome on our screens any day. On the other hand, Carpenter's comeback packs very little of his usual cinematic flair. It's not even all that scary, which is saying a lot when you're referring to the director who practically created what's now considered to be the golden age of the modern horror film. Part of the problem may stem from the fact that The Ward didn't spring from Carpenter's own imagination. Many of his best – or at least most memorable – directorial outings were self-penned (the nihilistically bleak The Thing and the Lovecraft-y In the Mouth of Madness being notable exceptions to the rule). Recently, in The New York Times, Carpenter classified The Ward as "an assignment," and from the opening sequence of the improbably gorgeous Amber Heard breaknecking through the woods to the final, schlocky shock, the film sure feels like homework. Ostensibly set sometime in the late Fifties, The Ward is populated by two pretty actresses who wear their period outfits as though they were in a contemporary, Maxim-esque cheesecake photo shoot. Heard, as the potentially insane firebug Kristen, is the opposite (well, almost) of Jamie Lee Curtis' boogeyman-slaying Laurie Strode. After Kristen is committed to the suitably creepy North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, all manner of blandly frightening hallucinations (or are they? and more importantly, who cares?) begin to plague her, while the other, unerringly clichéd patients intimate even stranger goings-on. Meh. No hoary horror trope is too lame for screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who frontload the overly familiar madhouse story (the far more effective, evocative Shutter Island springs clammily to mind) with leering orderlies, thuggish matrons, and a head nurse straight out central casting, or, predictably, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's a John Carpenter film in possessory credit only, but, somehow, it's also reassuring to know that the great man is back in the game. Now that he's finished his "assignment," here's hoping Carpenter can get back to making his own movies in his own electrifying way as soon as possible.