As a feature-film director, John Carpenter is about a .333 hitter - which is fine in major-league baseball but no great shakes in Hollywood.
Yet his reputation - based on the good films - is much stouter than it deserves to be. His best films are 20-plus years in the past but he continues to ride a wave of critical affection based on fond memories of movies seen long ago.
So there's been a certain amount of revisionism and unwarranted huzzahs at the fact that Carpenter has "returned" to horror films with The Ward, his first feature in a decade, opening Friday in limited release. Well, save the excitement for something that really matters; The Ward is nothing more than competent genre movie-making built around a silly conceit and sillier effects.
Part Shelter Island, part Sucker Punch, The Ward seems to be about Kristen (Amber Heard), first seen running through the woods in a slip, then setting fire to a farmhouse. That's where the cops find her; they drag her off to be drugged and put in an insane asylum (which is what they were still called in the 1960s, when this film is set).
Once locked up, she finds herself surrounded by a group of other young women of varying levels of clarity and friendliness. They all tell her there's no escape and that she should learn to go along. But she quickly discovers that, in fact, something weird is going on.
Not to put to fine a point on it but there's a killer ghost stalking the women on the ward. Dressed in institutional smock and bad monster makeup, this female apparition pops up at unlikely moments and spirits the inmates away, one at a time, dispatching them with variously cruel and graphic methods. Guess who will be left for last?
Carpenter understands how to keep things spooky - sudden appearances, unexpected noises, creaks, shadows and ominous music. But the setting is so vaguely threatening and obviously weird that you quickly figure out that none of this is real. The question then becomes: Whose imagination are we wandering through? And why should we care?
The answer is: There's no reason to care at all. The actresses - Heard, Lyndsy Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker, Mamie Gummer - give it their all, playing "crazy" or vulnerable as called for. But The Ward is all just formula horror - or in this case, a recipe for disaster. It's an easy film to skip.