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Movies: The Ward * *

While others have been busy remaking Halloween, The Taking of Pelham 123 and others of his classic films, horror guru John Carpenter has been taking things pretty easy over the past decade or so.

In fact, he hasn't directed a film since 2001, when his bizarre science-fiction thriller Ghosts of Mars was given a pretty rough ride by the critics, prompting him to take his ball home. Now he's back with The Ward, and up to his usual tricks.

The Ward is set in the mid-60s in a small country town. In the opening scenes, a scantily clad and clearly distressed young woman called Kristen (Amber Heard) runs through a wood as a police car gives chase. She stops at a remote clapboard house, sets fire to the curtains and stands back to watch the place burn. Then the police arrive and overpower her, and she's taken to the secure ward of a rundown mental hospital. Kristen can remember nothing about why she burnt the house down or how she's ended up being declared insane, and the hospital's staff don't offer much in the way of enlightenment.

The most sympathetic of them is a doctor called Dr Stringer (Jared Harris), but even he is not above using a spot of electro-shock therapy now and then, and come nightfall Kristen is left to the tender mercies of a couple of fairly brutal nurses. Almost as soon as she gets there Kristen realises that something is not right on the ward. During her first night someone or something creeps into her locked cell, removes her blanket and leaves behind a pile of bracelet beads that spell out the name Alice.

When she asks her fellow inmates Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca) and Emily (Mamie Gummer) who Alice might be, they are evasive. But when the girls start disappearing, and Kristen catches glimpses of a sinister, long-haired figure in the shadows, she realises that her life is in danger.

This is all very well as far as it goes, and a passable premise for a horror film. But once Carpenter has set his scene by throwing every cliché in the book at the problem, The Ward settles into a pattern of mild scares punctuated by listless dramatic interludes. The object of our fears looks like a disillusioned extra from the Thriller video, and in fact there's a distinct 80s, straight-to-video feel about the whole thing.

Not that The Ward is without moments of stylish terror. Carpenter isn't called the master of horror for nothing, and is always capable of setting up a disturbing scene. The performances are pretty good too, but overall the film lacks originality and bite.

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