John Carpenter's The Ward Review

Image for John Carpenter's The Ward

In 1966, Kristen (Amber Heard), an amnesiac arsonist, is committed to a psychiatric unit where therapist Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) is treating a gaggle of disturbed girls who seem to be haunted by the angry spirit of a mysteriously departed patient. Unable to convince the staff that the patients are in danger, Kristen makes persistent escape attempts.


Considering John Carpenter has been off-form (Escape From LA, Vampires, Ghosts Of Mars) or absent from cinema (making a few episodes of TV show Masters Of Horror) since the ’80s, it’s a pleasure to report this small-scale, intricately constructed genre movie is a satisfying suspense-horror. It might not match the achievements of his Halloween or The Thing years (let’s face it, few horror films do), but it’s a solid, old-fashioned, spook-scare story with a lot of added value, from an outstanding titles sequence to an impressive, atmospheric score (not by Carpenter, but soundalike Mark Kilian).

The period asylum setting, with Mediaeval-esque restraint and shock treatment alongside loopy-seeming acting-out therapies, is a deliberate shout-back to Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and the run of weirdly Freudian dramas Robert Bloch penned after he hit big with Psycho. Martin Scorsese tapped into a similar backlist in Shutter Island, and this might make a smart B picture to support that A production, deploying just as many thunderstorms and demented character turns but much faster and with a Crypt Keeper cackle that keeps it all in good fun rather than pushing the pretension pedal.

The angry spectre of the absent Alice (Mika Boorem) is a little too rubbery ghost to pass muster in a post-Ring ghost girl film, but the various stalk-and-kill sequences in which revenge is wrought are perfectly staged — with that trademark prowling camera and a decent number of hokey but undeniably effective jump-out-of-your-seat shocks.

Amber Heard, a rising horror star on the strength of All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, is a gutsy Carpenterian heroine, with a tough edge that keeps the question of whether she deserves to be locked up or not open throughout her ordeal. She is supported by an interesting cast of actresses as her fellow inmates, each with a separate and distinct neurosis: the unusual-looking Mamie Gummer is especially strong as a bipolar self-harmer, but Danielle Panabaker is fun as the obligatory stuck-up, horny mean girl.

While not as simple as the set-up makes out, it’s happy to be good of its type rather than groundbreaking. With Joe Dante and John Landis back in harness, it’s good to see Carpenter’s return. Hope still for Tobe Hooper...