Gothika Movie Review

If only screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez had put as much effort into story logic and credible characters as director Mathieu Kassovitz puts into generating seat-grabbing goosebumps in "Gothika," the wannabe-cerebral supernatural horror thriller might have had more going for it than just a few good shudders and jumps.

The first above-the-title starring vehicle for 2002 Oscar winner Halle Berry -- playing a criminal psychologist who blacks out after a car accident and wakes up in her own prison asylum, accused of axe-murdering her husband -- the film begins with a strike against it for its laughable attempts at evocative dialogue in the opening-scene rantings of a wild-eyed inmate (Penelope Cruz).

"He opened me like a flower of pain...and it felt goooood," the pretty Spaniard flares, all dowdied-down in Serious Actress Mode. "(Then) I cut his Adam's apple in half like a soft fruit on a summer day."

When Berry, as Cruz's unconvincing "brilliant and respected" shrink, tries a cheap head-game table-turn on her, Cruz replies, "You're not listening.... You're not listening with your heart!" And she follows up by instilling the movie with its tag-line premise: "You can't trust someone who thinks you're crazy."

That night during a drive home in the rain, Berry swerves to miss a ghostly girl standing in the road and wakes up three days later -- locked up, violently widowed and apparently nuts. Despite all her supposed doctoral expertise that should tell her to calm down and think rationally, all she does for a while is scream and act berserk in ways that get her pinned down and medicated by doctors (including the subtly superb Robert Downey, Jr) and nurses who have suddenly turned patronizing.

There's no clever twist to explain this behavior (hers or theirs), but it only gets worse when the pale blonde ghost (whose backwards-walking, matted-hair-in-the-eyes eeriness is the current genre fad -- see also "The Ring") keeps popping up wherever Berry goes in the imposing old castle-like penitentiary, where the newest cells have fancy glass walls and the staff has its own swimming pool, yet the electrical wiring is so bad that the florescent lights (mounted illogically but atmospherically on walls instead of ceilings) flicker off and on at the slightest provocation.

French actor-director Kassovitz (best known Stateside as the eccentric object of desire in "Amélie") uses such contrivances to surprisingly chilling effect (in one scene the camera takes on the ghost's unsettlingly ethereal point of view, passing through walls and bodies and lurking ominous centimeters from Berry's panicked face). Every sudden sighting of this girl -- whether truly startling or negligently telegraphed in advance -- is hair-raising, and for just a moment each time, "Gothika" realizes its potential.

But as our haunted heroine endeavors to escape, hoping the ghost will lead her to some answers, the movie goes to pot. Logical chasms open up in the plot as "shocking" discoveries are made that prove what a completely inept psychologist she must be, and the tension of the promising second act dissipates and degrades into an unimaginative boilerplate finale that impudently and conveniently skips right over a dozen loose ends.

In what must have been a draining performance, Berry's intensity keeps the picture humming along despite her character's paper-thin credibility. Her performance also helps "Gothika" overcome some of its other problems, like the miscasting of Charles S. Dutton as her husband (with 15 years and good 90 pounds on the actress, he seems more like her father). A less conspicuous but ultimately more revealing faux pas is the fact that the film takes place in a world where a prison shrink can be interned with her own patients and treated as batty by her own colleagues without anyone considering the myriad conflicts of interest.

Had Gutierrez ("Judas Kiss") and Kassovitz (who previously directed "Hate" and "The Crimson Rivers") invested more energy in character development and common sense, there could have been potential here for a thinking person's chiller-thriller with the ambiance of a "Sixth Sense." But what they've cranked out instead is a forgettably common fright flick wearing its psychological themes like a Halloween costume.


Gothika Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, WIDE: Friday, November 21, 2003


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