Master of shock turns predictable
Go on and try, but no one watching “The Ward’’ will ever believe it’s set at an asylum. I mean, the hard, clinical air stinks of mental hospital. But it’s pure sorority house. The head doctor (Jared Harris) has no idea what Kristen (Amber Heard) is doing there. She did burn down a farmhouse, but she was also wearing a teddy. Kristen’s locked up with a group of pert, young coed-like patients who attack each other with cattiness. Later, when half of them go missing the staff doesn’t seem to notice. The hospital business is a pretext for the group-shower sequence (“huh-huh-huh-huh huuuuuh,’’ coo the female voices on the soundtrack) where a ghoulish hand reaches out to wring Kristen’s neck. Oh my God, wring mine!
Even by the standards of mental-institution-movie misogyny, what an accidental but predictable creepshow this is. There’s none of the usual prurient interest in these women, just a dutiful determination to impale, fry, and slice them up. The 1960s setting is a license to bask in the stigma of a female nuthouse. Even so, despite the presence of a shrink, very little psychologizing gets done. I’m afraid the desperate trick ending doesn’t count. “The Ward’’ is just a lot of actors - Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mika Boorem, and poor Mamie Gummer - attempting their best “Girl, Interrupted’’ impersonation. Zach Snyder’s otherwise unclean “Sucker Punch’’ at least had fun hypnotizing marionettes into believing they’re freethinking warriors. “The Ward’’ operates by checklist.
How depressing to discover that John Carpenter is the man running this operation. His talent for building and sustaining suspense has now warped into flaccid attempt at fright and ogling ringers for Britney Spears and, in Heard’s case, Scarlett Johansson. When Heard opens a morgue refrigerator, a hand pops in the frame. It’s that sort of movie. Working from a screenplay that Michael and Shawn Rasmussen pecked up, this is Carpenter’s first film in 10 years, and he’s now as rhythmless and uninspired as the generations of hacks who understandably cite him as a hero. There are some nice touches. Heard’s resemblance to Johansson, for instance, gets complicated after she’s locked away and her platinum updo gets more and more Kim Novak. And at some point, the movie flashes the best scene from Bert I. Gordon’s 1960 B movie “Tormented.’’ It’s a jokey allusion meant to get at what Kristen and company must endure. It also concisely captures the experience of watching them endure it.