JOHN CARPENTER'S THE WARD (15) ***

For more than 35 years, director John Carpenter has been making audiences shudder and scream in the dark with nightmarish visions including Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing and Christine.

Since the release of the post-apocalyptic Ghosts Of Mars in 2001, the veteran film-maker has enjoyed a well-earned hiatus from the big screen, only venturing behind the camera for a couple of episodes of the long-running Master Of Horrors television series.

Now happily ensconced in his early 60s, Carpenter returns to the director's chair for a very different though equally bloodthirsty ghost story penned by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen.

The Ward unfolds in a 1960s mental institution and commits the cardinal sin of wilfully cheating the audience for the sake of a final reel twist.

Unlike The Sixth Sense, which played fair and was jaw-dropping when we discovered the script's immaculate sleight of hand, the Rasmussen brothers' spooky tale of things that go bump in the night offers a couple of clues to its convoluted design.

However, there is very little reward for outsmarting the writers and the coda is deeply old-fashioned, employing the same primitive shock tactics as Carpenter's earlier horror films.

Kristen (Amber Heard) is incarcerated in North Bend Psychiatric Hospital for setting fire to an abandoned farmhouse.

She is remanded to the isolation ward under the care of Dr Stringer (Jared Harris) and immediately clashes with dour Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney) and orderly Roy (Dan Anderson), who warns the new girl: "I can be your friend or I can be a thorn in your side."

Kristen soon meets the other patients: Self-abusive Emily (Mamie Gummer), talented artist Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), flirtatious Sarah (Danielle Panabaker) and babyish Zoey (Laura-Leigh), who signals impending doom when she whimpers, "I don't like the dark, bad things happen in the dark!".

Late one night, Kristen glimpses a ghostly face staring at her through the window and she senses that something is terribly awry at North Bend.

Sure enough, the hospital conceals a shocking secret about a former patient called Alice (Mika Boorem) and as Kristen searches for clues, she discovers why no one leaves Dr Stringer's care alive.

John Carpenter's The Ward doesn't stray too far from our expectations, slowly whittling down the cast as dark forces run rampant through the hospital corridors.

Similarities to a recent Leonardo DiCaprio thriller, which pulled the same wool over our eyes with infinitely more style, reduce the denouement to a whimper rather than a bang.

Heard delivers a solid lead performance, caught between confusion and terror for most of the film.

Death sequences are gruesome enough to warrant the 15 certificate but will not be giving fans of gore-slathered torture films such as Saw and Hostel any sleepless nights.

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