An open field. A girl. A fire. A mystery. Ignoring a brief and ultimately irrelevant prologue, the beginning of “The Ward” immediately pulls us into the story of a classic horror convention, the Survivor Girl. Except, tantalizingly, we don’t know what she’s survived and, given a few orchestral cues, we may even question whether she has survived or not.
This girl is played by Amber Heard, the young starlet who sadly never made headlines until her announcement regarding her homosexuality to the press, a strategy followed by her unfortunate lateral move to television in the likely-to-be-canceled “The Playboy Club.” Heard graduated from the same thankless roles any actress her age who will strip nude is forced to inhabit and, somewhere along the line, became an onscreen firecracker, a riveting screen presence that carries a similarly-electric charge as the early performances of her “Drive Angry” costar, Nicolas Cage.
Heard, amongst a cast of fairly eye-catching females, is persistent like a pistol as the new inmate at a fairly nondescript institution. Kept in the dark along with the more considerably-dislodged patients, she starts to openly rebel against a supposedly “experimental treatment” administered by laconic Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris, with one finger on the snooze button). And so it begins -- who is she? What did she do? What is this experimental treatment? Is the sixties time-period at all relevant?
The movie unfortunately has little respect for these queries, as it turns out, somewhat arbitrarily, that a decayed boogey(wo)man is stalking the halls. At key points, the floating specter is a lethal threat. During others, it just wants to administer a brief chokehold before vanishing. The tenuous reason for why this spook is so inconsistent is given during a tired non-explanation that implies that you will accept simply because you’ve seen several bad movies. The argument is that if you remove the ghost, you lose the more overt scares of the film. On the other, sturdier hand, ditching the phantom would have forced the filmmakers to create actual compelling drama between our characters.
But, director John Carpenter has known this. Despite the ultra-violence of “Assault On Precinct 13,” our interest is in the power struggle between the cops and the shaky alliance with criminals. “The Thing” is a memorably bloody horror story, though the film earned its reputation because of the alpha male tension and overbearing paranoia. Unlike those films, “The Ward” doesn’t have the familiar Carpenter feel, or even the regular Carpenter sound (and one can argue the memorable Ennio Morricone score for “The Thing” is clearly aping Mr. Carpenter’s earlier efforts). In place of the otherworldly droning synths of Mr. Carpenter and frequent collaborator Alan Howarth, we’re treated to an inelegant ooga-booga cue repetition from Mark Kilian. Apparently Mr. Kilian thinks you need a reminder to be scared in a John Carpenter film. The hope is that he doesn’t feel that way about other Carpenter films.
The 63-year-old Carpenter, who hasn’t made a movie in a decade, directs “The Ward” the way he probably dances today: creaky, without rhythm, and desperate to get back off the floor. With no concept of time or place, scenes melt into each other, perhaps in an attempt to create a dream state, but more likely with the hopes you won’t begin to question the complete lack of context. “The Ward” doesn’t seem like a John Carpenter movie, and at points, it doesn’t even feel like a theatrical release: more like something from Lucky McKee’s editor, or a lesser Larry Fessenden acolyte, quietly released on DVD from Ghost House.
Which isn’t to say the latest from the director of “Halloween,” “Dark Star” and “Prince Of Darkness” is without pleasures. Though sadly, they come mostly from Ms. Heard. You can’t keep your eyes off this girl, less of a young twentysomething and more of a force of nature. She is initially startled by the presence of the poltergeist, somewhat unconvincingly fleeing in terror. But once she takes up arms, her jaw clenched, her eyes hungry for vengeance, this ghost doesn’t stand a chance. [C-]