Amber Heard stars as Kristen, a young woman who we meet running through the woods clad only in a slip, desperate to evade police long enough to make it to a mysterious and abandoned farmhouse which she promptly burns down on arrival. Her fit of arson lands Kristen in the secure ward of a mental hospital, a ward populated entirely by other young women of variable level of psychosis and here she will remain until diagnosed and, presumably, healed. But as the other girls tell her, nobody ever leaves. Not officially anyway, though several previous residents have simply disappeared.
Laced with effective jumps and some genuinely atmospheric moments, The Ward is a somewhat uneven affair. While the early scenes, in particular, show some vintage Carpenter flair with the camera moving steadily, inexorably through a series of complex dolly and crane shots and long, slow push ins, the signature style becomes less pronounced as the film progresses and finally ends up in a place difficult to distinguish from any number of young up and comers' work.
This sort of blanched personality is an overarching characteristic of the film, with striking characters and effective performances - to say nothing of a villain that could easily become the driving force of a new franchise - slowly being smoothed over, almost as if decisions were being made by committee rather than under the firm eye of one dominant personality. It feels a touch engineered, with elements of J-horror, classic slashers and haunted house stories brought to a cast designed to appeal to teenage girls and boys who like teenage girls while throwing in not particularly subtle nods to films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Identity.
The cast is a bit of a mixed bag with Jared Harris - you know his as the villain in season one of Fringe - turning in the best work as Kristen's physician, Dr Stringer. Heard is solid as is Lyndsey Fonseca as Iris while the other girls vary scene by scene, occasionally retreating into nervous tics and twitches rather than actually fleshing out fully believable characters. The cinematography and editing is a quite strong, both proving Carpenter can still work a mood with the best of them, though the score - not by Carpenter, incidentally - seems a bit mismatched at times and has a definite tendency to hit the jump moments with a much harder blast of noise than is really necessary.
Though not Carpenter's best work by a considerable margin, and though it had a tendency to recycle ideas from better films rather than really build its own, The Ward is still an effective and entertaining film. With any luck this return to feature films after nearly a decade long layoff will prove to be a warm up to even bigger and better things in the future.