Gothika (2003) / Horror-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, language and nudity
Running Time: 95 min.

Cast: Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., John Carroll Lynch, Penelope Cruz, Charles Dutton, Bernard Hill, Kathleen Mackey 
Mathieu Kassovitz
Screenplay: Sebastian Gutierrez
Review published November 23, 2003

Every year it seems, Hollywood trots out the same stupid horror movie about a haunting that won't go away until you get to the bottom of their pained existence in the real world.  Stir of Echoes, In Dreams, What Lies Beneath, and The Ring are just a few of the more popular ones, and now you can add Gothika to the list of exploitative ghost stories that seeks to do one thing only: give you a shock every five minutes.  As long as you don't know what's going on, these shockers can be moderately effective, and a little scary, but usually the reasons behind all of the brouhaha are either too distasteful, or downright laughable, and Gothika fails to break that trend.

Perhaps the strongest element of Gothika is the terrific performance by Halle Berry (X2, Die Another Day), who actually makes this bad film seem worth watching at times.  She plays Miranda Grey, a top psychologist working at an isolated hospital for women who are deemed to be criminally insane.  Her hubby Douglas (Dutton, Random Hearts) is the head shrink of the hospital, and the two seem to be quite happily married, enough to thwart the advances of their associate Pete (Downey Jr., Wonder Boys), who constantly flirts with Miranda.  One rainy night, a sink hole forces Miranda to take a detour over an old bridge where she almost collides with a girl standing in the middle of the road, and when she confronts her, she catches on fire.  Miranda awakens from the experience to find is she's in her hospital again, not as a doctor, but as one of the patients, and is informed that her husband is dead and she is the killer, and everyone thinks she is crazy.

Gothika is Mathieu Kassovitz second grisly thriller in a row, coming after the somewhat similar horrific flick, The Crimson Rivers, and like that one, the tone here is dark, humorless, and distasteful.  The film is nothing but atmospherics; lights flash on and off, apparitions appear out of nowhere just to say "booga booga", and every inch of the design of the place is bleak and despairing. 

In a fashion, the combination of Berry's believable performance works well in concert with the somewhat agonizing background to the film.  Berry looks like she is really in pain and grief during those scenes where she is called to emote them, and the sympathy factor does set in.  Alas, Gutierrez's script doesn't do her performance justice, especially the final scenes, which are an excursion into ham-handed inanity, unraveling in the most cliché of ways until even most viewers who may have been reeled in by the thriller elements will lose interest, having traveled down this road enough times to not be surprised.

Savvy horror-thriller viewers should stay away from Gothika, as it telegraphs its plot points in such a way that you're always a few steps ahead of the game.  This is a film that's only effective for those who are easily scared, and like to be, regardless of the shoddy explanations as to what's behind it all.  Gothika is a Z-grade fright flick given big budget treatment, but without any new twist or spin, it's just a well-produced bad movie, offering only superficial scares and an absence of intelligence throughout.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2003 Vince Leo