This whole "review" is really just going to be one great big spoiler, because I can't really discuss what I see as the main story pitfalls without it. So if you haven't seen the film, take note that I really, really liked the opening credits, and come back in 88 minutes.
Ah, there you are. Nice to see you again. OK, we can continue.
Didn't you like the opening credits? Come on, medieval woodcuts, Horgarth etchings, circa-1950s stock photos of shock treatment? In chronological order? How could you not? As an archival photo researcher, I was especially thrilled by that credit sequence. (Yes, I work as an archival photo researcher for documentaries when not writing. And yes, I am available for hire.)
Unfortunately, things start to sputter as soon as the narrative kicks in. The film progresses in fits and starts, with occasional moments of suspense strung among much atmosphere-y mood-setting. The action picks up when the ghost of murdered mental patient Alice Hudson starts aggressively pursuing the heroine in addition to all the other girls in the ward, and we are treated to some truly fun running-around-being-scared sequences. That all the characters are stock cutouts bothered me until the final twist was revealed -- then it somewhat made sense.
But -- and here come the spoilers --I was slightly disappointed by the multiple personality disorder explanation. I'm not sure why, since I particularly like any narrative of dissociative amnesia or dissociative fugue. Fractured identities are always awesome (story-wise). Perhaps it was because so little was done with diagnosis of MPD once we got to that exposition-heavy portion of the script. The whole third act felt verrrry hastily slapped together, and I'm not sure but that the final twist couldn't have been handled better. Putting aside all my other problems with act three, I'd even be happy with just a revised version of that final twist.
If I had a world of my own, this is how I would have ended it: the scene plays out just as it is now, with Alice looking into the mirror. But instead of Kristen's demon-ghost arm grabbing at her, she'd just be staring back at her placidly from her reflection. And then Alice could say something like, "I'd never let them kill you, Kristen," and smile at her. You know, indicating she's still crazy. Or maybe not say anything at all. Lately I've been of a mind that being crazy is scarier than actual supernatural beings. Maybe it's just a phase I'm going through and in six weeks the pendulum will swing and I'll be bored by psychological horror again. But right now I find myself unmoved by Kristen's demon-ghost arm.
Which leads me to another thing: is Alice Hudson a ghost, a demon, or what? I mean, obviously it ends up with her just being a hallucination, but for most of the movie -- when we think she's a supernatural creature -- we're not sure what she is. She seems to be a ghost, but then Kristen is able to injure her with the axe. I kind of like that, though, that she doesn't fit into a clearly identifiable taxonomy of baddie.
I also have to say I like the way each personality was killed off. The death of each girl was actually a sign Alice was getting cured. What we non-crazies would see as an unequivocally positive event was represented as a horrible trauma on screen (it clearly hurt Alice to give up her safety personalities). This is indeed a twisted way to look at becoming healthy, as well as a fresh approach to the possible meanings of murder.
Although The Ward is not unflawed, it certainly takes its place alongside Shutter Island and Bedlam (1946) as an interesting foray into the dark side of the cure.