Possibly John Carpenter’s revulsion regarding mental hospitals as well as the way movies these days dabble in hi-tech special effects rather than raw artistry, The Ward’s back-to-basics horror spree is likely the iconic director’s own notion of ’60s retro-rebellion. And an odd bit of Cuckoo’s Nest mental ward minimalist moviemaking, in contrast to say the overwrought Sucker Punch – and with a concurrent split personality of its own – displaying a dramatic defiance couched in contradictory resistance and defeat.
Amber Heard, in disheveled mode just prior to her controversial breakout small screen turn as bling-accessorized glamour bunny in The Playboy Club this coming fall, is Kristen. A psychologically tortured teen runaway who’s just burned down a farmhouse somewhere in 1966 rural America, Kristen is captured and committed to the ominous, austere North Bend nuthouse (In reality, Eastern State Hospital in Spokane). Where she may even be a figment of her own imagination, only the filmmaker knows for sure.
Stricken with amnesia and fiercely objecting to her incarceration, Kristen refuses all forms of treatment. Including common questionable practices back then like routine electroshock convulsive therapy and trans-orbital (straight through the eyeball) lobotomies in anesthesia-free zones. And with no chance of recovery, except perhaps in the afterlife.
There’s also creepy shrink Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) on the premises, who seems to be running the asylum like a roach motel, where you check in but never check out unless it’s minus a pulse. And if you aren’t mentally ill already, where you’ll be driven certifiably insane eventually anyway.
And as Kristen alternately bonds or backs away from her fellow female inmates – freaky when not literally freaked out – they begin to disappear one at a time. As ghosts of patients past appear to be roaming about freely, while depraved psychiatric supervision prevails and staff looks the other way on cue.
And compounding the ensuing girl-on-girl violence and prevailing weirdness is Mamie Gummer, as disturbed co-conspirator Emily – actress daughter of Meryl Streep who unlike Mom, is stuck with successive loser roles so far. While a seemingly born again teen zombie stalks Kristen around the ward at night, threatening assorted homicidal mayhem.
Carpenter embellishes his heavily medicated hotties in lockdown yarn with a few fleeting whimsical touches of atmospheric nostalgia here and there. But the guru of arty gore (Halloween, Village Of The Damned) bypasses too many missed opportunities to reflect on some seriously shady issues affecting females in the past. For whom institutionalization was a travesty and common method of deterring the emerging and inevitable empowerment bids by women, or simply a way for a husband to rid himself of an inconvenient spouse for another woman.
In effect, Carpenter’s opts for a copout ending, despite a mood-setting opener revisiting the depraved history of human medical torture. And without giving too much away, effectively reinforces establishment assumptions about ‘difficult’ women.
2 1/2 stars