Intimate, well-acted, and creepy, this horror film has the young female patients of a secluded mental hospital being haunted by a mysterious, sinister element. The lead character, Kristen, has been institutionalized for, seemingly, burning down her house, but we, the audience, saw her running home in terror in the opening; we know she is innocent, and sane, allowing us to see the horrors of the hospital through her eyes. She meets the ambitious, experimental head doctor, the slobbering, burly head orderly, and her fellow patients, all with varying degrees of mental instability. When she realizes that the patients are being unceremoniously “released” one by one, Kristen starts to plumb the history of the establishment, in particular researching the fate of one former patient, a young girl named Alice, who everyone seems to remember, but hardly want to talk about. As Kristen gets closer with her fellow inmates, she begins to plot a mass exodus from the grounds in an attempt to save their lives, their sanity, or whatever else may hang in the balance.
The first thing to notice about the film is that it’s got atmosphere out the wazoo, courtesy of legendary director John Carpenter (who, let us not forget, practically invented modern horror with Halloween). From the unforgiving florescent lights, to the faded paint on the hallways, to the clumpy, bedraggled nature of Kristen’s blonde hair, every visual element contributes to the run-down feeling of being imprisoned and the impending terror of the otherworldly. The jump-scares are few and far between, leaving the tense mood of the film to be sustained through mise-en-scene and acting, which Carpenter is able to effortlessly execute. Carps has, once again, found an ideal scream queen in Amber Heard, who is appropriately tough, feral, and emotive, and probably took the film more seriously than many of her contemporaries would have. Backing up Heard is Kick-Ass’ Lyndsy Fonseca, endearing and adorable as Kristen’s first friend in the hospital, Danielle Panabaker, slightly overwhelmed and aimless as the resident spoiled bitch, and Jared Harris as the bizarre, potentially sinister head doctor. While the conclusion is fairly arbitrary, and contains a final twist that is hardly original, the build-up, as well as Heard’s performance, is effective enough that they still pack a decent whallop.
Recommended to fans of John Carpenter, Amber Heard, or of a more psychological brand of otherworldly horror. People like to hate on latter day Carpenter, saying that this follows the turgid pattern of films like Ghosts of Mars, In The Mouth of Madness, and Village of the Damned; seeing as I rather liked In The Mouth of Madness, I’d say this ranks somewhere below that and, definitely, Prince of Darkness, but definitely above Mars and Village of the Damned.