It would be unfair of me to say which psychological thriller John Carpenter’s The Ward rips off, for knowing even that tiny bit of information would spoil just about everything for you. I’m well aware that movies don’t automatically fail on the basis of their originality, or lack thereof, although I do wonder how filmmakers can be so unfamiliar with certain other movies, especially when they’re fairly well known to the paying public. Or perhaps they are familiar with certain other movies and simply don’t care that they’re using the same basic storyline. If Georges Polti was correct in distilling dramatic situations to a list of just thirty-six, then I guess there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Still, a large part of me wishes the filmmakers had tried for something a bit less conventional.
That being said, the film is competently made – at least, as competently as a horror film taking place in a mental institution can be. Its atmosphere is standard but effective, with many instances of dark hallways, lightning flashes, and mysterious footsteps that inevitably lead to pop-out scares. It has all the expected hallmarks of a horror movie, including monster makeup, gore effects, and a malevolent force of unknown origin. The plot is filled with contrivances and dramatic licenses, but that ultimately doesn’t matter; the twist at the end, which I will not reveal for obvious reasons, explains not only why certain things happened but also why things didn’t happen. In other words, the ending gives every scene leading up to it a reprieve. That doesn’t always work. Need I remind you of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village?
The film’s opening credit sequence shows disturbing still frames of women being lobotomized, all of which are superimposed on panes of glass that shatter in slow motion. We then go back to Oregon in the year 1966, where we see a bruised and battered young woman named Kristen (Amber Heard) burning down a farmhouse. She’s captured by the police and immediately sent to the local sanitarium, where she’s placed under the care of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), whose mysterious methods of treatment involve traditional and experimental drugs, hypnotherapy, and the occasional use of electroshock treatment. She’s sent to what has been nicknamed The Ward, where she meets Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney); think of the obvious word her name rhymes with, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of her personality type.
Kristen also meets four other female patients, two of which don’t seem like patients at all but rather like sorority girls in a teen slasher film. There’s Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), impulsive, vane, and always with the bitchy attitude. There’s Zoey (Laura Leigh), who has psychologically regressed to the level of a little girl; she sucks her thumb, she’s afraid of the dark, and she constantly coddles a stuffed rabbit as if it were a baby. There’s Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), who seems nice and is the first to befriend Kristen. She likes drawing and will eventually ask Kristen, with what seemed like a hint of desire, if she could sketch her. Finally, there’s Emily (Mamie Gummer), whose strength and protective instincts mask feelings of guilt. She does not get along with Sarah, but then again, no one gets along with Sarah.
Kristen is convinced she isn’t crazy, and she spends the rest of the film either planning an escape or actually making escape attempts. She also tries to get to the bottom of a mystery involving a former patient named Alice, who the other girls speak of in short, cryptic bursts. Her disappearance may have something to do with the disappearances of other former patients, including Tammy, the last occupant of Kristen’s room. In due time, specific people will be offed by a largely unseen evil entity, whose clawed hands are gray and inhuman. Could it be that Alice’s ghost is stalking the patients of The Ward? If so, why is she doing this? And what does she want with Kristen? Does the medical staff know more than they’re letting on? Do the other patients?
All of the above questions are answered in some form or another, but in the grand scheme of things, explanations don’t really matter – especially if you’re familiar with the film I made reference to at the start of this review, whose title I’m keeping secret. I think the only real attraction of this movie is John Carpenter, since his last theatrical feature film was released a decade ago. The Ward is not much of a return and is unlikely to win him rave reviews. At best, all that can be said is that it’s a serviceable horror film. If you want to be more academic about it (which is, at this point, the only angle of approach I have left), four of Polti’s thirty-six dramatic situations apply to it. If you’re at all interested, they are: (7) Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune; (10) abduction; (11) the enigma; and (16) madness. Take from this what you will.