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Gothika (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 21 November 2003
French director Mathieu Kassovitz ("The Crimson Rivers") makes his American debut with "Gothika," the latest production from Dark Castle Entertainment. That's the company started by Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis; their first two productions were remakes of William Castle movies, "House on Haunted Hill" and "13 Ghosts." This new one is not a Castle remake, but it's so hackneyed and obvious that it might as well be a remake of a movie nobody remembered.

Halle Berry stars as prison psychologist Miranda Grey, who deals with inmates like Chloe (Penelope Cruz), who confuses being raped by her stepfather with a steamy affair with the devil. Miranda's husband, Dr. Douglas Grey (Charles S. Dutton), is the head of the psychiatric division at the prison. Pete Graham (Robert Downey, Jr.), another psychiatrist, admires her from a respectful distance.

While driving home one night in a thunderous downpour, complete with lightning, the local sheriff, Bob Ryan (John Carroll Lynch), her husband's best friend, sends her home by a side road because the highway has a big sinkhole. As she crosses a covered bridge, she almost runs into a terrified girl (Kathleen Mackey) standing in the road. Miranda's car goes into a ditch, and when she approaches the girl, she's stunned to see her covered in scars (supposedly -- I couldn't see them) and then burst into flames.

Miranda suddenly awakes in a cell at the prison -- she's a prisoner and doesn't know why. Pete tersely explains to her that she murdered her husband.

Now right here credibility takes a nosedive. Doug was killed only three days before. Why is Miranda in prison? Doesn't the unnamed New England state have due process? She hasn't even been arraigned. I'd buy her in a hospital under tight guard, but not in a glass cell at the penitentiary. This is only the first of gaping logical flaws riddling "Gothika."

Another -- is it even remotely credible that a psychiatrist would be put into a prison population that includes her own patients? Wouldn't that be devastating to them? And why does this prison seem to include both lunatics and regular prisoners? This and other elements, like an unconvincing mass shower, were so preposterous to me as to lead me down the false path of assuming all this was happening only in Miranda's mind, not in reality.
The prison is always dim; the prisoners have nothing on their walls; their cells have no obvious toilet facilities; they all seem to be confined one to a cell. Miranda escapes from her cell several times with ease, but no one else ever does. The whole thing is in a kind of unreal movie color, a sort of gray blue-green. It's creepy and depressing, and not believable except as a kind of nightmare.

But no, it's reality. The girl at the bridge is the ghost of the daughter of Phil Parsons (Bernard Hill), a prison official; she evidently killed herself several years ago. Now she's haunting Miranda; we eventually learn she wants Miranda to do something for her, but this is hard to believe when the ghosts spends quite a while pounding Miranda against the walls of her cell.

The end of "Gothika" is no more believable than the middle, but I shouldn't give too much away here. Just take my word for it: I couldn't see any reason why Miranda would be released from prison.

The preview audience reacted loudly to a shock scene that, unless my memory fails me, was lifted from "The Ring," the obvious inspiration for "Gothika." On the other hand, some laughed aloud at the idea of slender, beautiful Halle Berry being married to hulking Charles Dutton. And at the end, in the big confrontation between Miranda and the remaining villain, the audience found the scene funny rather than scary, although they did seem to like the film overall.

Director Kassovitz is in love with a moving camera; under his direction, cinematographer Matthew Libatique swirls his camera around the actors, in one shot moving in for a very tight shot of Berry's right eye, then swiftly pulling back and circling her head. This is imaginative and showy, and serves to realize Miranda's confused state of mind, but there's far too much of this stuff. It's more often distracting than it is effective.

Still, Kassovitz shows a great deal of skill in terms of realizing the mood he's after -- "Gothika" has a distinctive look, quite different from the other Dark Castle movies, or from the other horror movies which have proved unexpectedly popular this year. Recently, there have been articles demonstrating that the current wave of horror movies is attracting a large female audience. "Gothika" is likely to pull them in, too, with Halle Berry in the leading role (for the first time).

Berry is very good in the part, but she's shown herself to be such a good actress elsewhere it's a little puzzling to find her in such a routine, ordinary movie. Maybe it's the Cuba Gooding, Jr. syndrome: win an Oscar, then fritter away your talents in movies not worthy of them.

Berry certainly gets a workout here; she clearly does some (all?) of her own stunts, and repeatedly runs down the steely corridors at high speed. She's thrown herself into the role, and seizes the movie in her perfect teeth. It's too bad the movie itself is such a second-rater -- Berry is a first-rate talent.

"Gothika" isn't really a terrible movie, but the script by Sebastian Gutierrez is all flash and filigree, going after shock effects instead of clearly explaining what's going on. Too much of it, such as the ghost's punishing attacks on Berry, don't really seem to derive from the backstory we finally learn. The movie ends with a hint of a sequel, and who knows? This may make enough money to warrant one, but it doesn't deserve one.

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