Gothika Review

by Laura Clifford (laura AT reelingreviews DOT com)
November 20th, 2003


After a day at Woodward Penitentiary where the satanic rape ravings of murderous patient Chloe (Penelope Cruz, "Vanilla Sky") have once again frustrated her analysis, criminal psychologist, Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry, "X2: X-Men United") seeks advice from her husband Doug (Charles S. Dutton, "Random Hearts"), the ward's chief administrator. To further complicate her day, they're interrupted mid-kiss by Dr. Pete Graham (Robert Downey, Jr.), who dogs Miranda until she leaves work late on a dark and stormy night. Awaking from a horrifying encounter with a drenched, battered girl on a bridge on her way home, Miranda finds herself a patient at her own facility and learns from Pete she's accused of murdering her husband in "Gothika."

"Gothika's" Dark Castle Entertainment development team inspired no confidence with its filmography of "Thir13en Ghosts" and "Ghost Ship," but they've assembled a classy package
for "Gothika" that includes a genuine horror rarity - real scares. Not since "Stir of Echoes" has a vengeful ghost been quite so creepy.

Screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez ("Judas Kiss") takes a classic Hitchcockian idea and laces it with moments of startling horror. Grey is faced with being a member of a population she'd regarded as psychotic the day before, hanging onto her belief in her own sanity as former colleagues like Graham and Phil Parsons (Bernard Hill, "The Lord of the Ring: The Two Towers") doubt it. After a nasty confrontation with her husband's best friend, Sheriff Ryan (John Carroll Lynch, "Fargo"), the man who detoured her to the bridge that night, Grey begins to remember more and more about the night her husband was axed to death, leading her to believe that she was there. All the while paranormal events, like the "Not Alone" message which raises on her arm and continued sightings of the ever more threatening little girl, continue to haunt her and Chloe begins to make more and more sense. Miranda must abandon her psychiatric knowledge and sleuth her way to the truth.

Berry portrays the beleaguered shrink beautifully, at turns terrified, determined, rebellious, confused. She plays off Dutton and Downey Jr. differently, suggesting an unsure deference to one and demure denial to the other (it is initially unclear whether Pete and Miranda have a former relationship, but the attraction on Pete's side is clearly evident). Downey Jr. must keep us unbalanced as to his motivations, which he does, although his performance is reigned in by restrictions of the script. Cruz, in a black psycho-chic Louise Brooks bob, aces her supporting role with a Chloe who is alternately menacing and helpless.

Much of the film's success lies with its exemplary technical team. Director Mathieu Kassovitz ("The Crimson Rivers") sustains a creepy build, creating tension from the enclosed spaces of the women's pen (St. Vincent-de-Paul Prison, an abandoned maximum security facility in Quebec, stands in for Woodward), cars, basements, bathrooms and jails. A scene set in Woodward's indoor pool facility is the creepiest of its type since Lewton's "Cat People." Matthew Libatique's ("Requiem for a Dream") camera stays close to its subjects, obscuring our field of vision until just the right moments. When Miranda begins to hear 'voices,' the camera becomes the voice's point of view, circling closely around Berry's head, darting into her neck or her ear. Cruz's Chloe tells Miranda gloomy portents while her face is obscured behind a netting of shadow cast from the diamond-patterned walls of the prisoners' cage. Editor Yannick Kergoat ("Amen") delivers split second shock effects, and makes the ghost (a nod to "The Ring's" drenched little girl with long hair) particularly eerie by removing frames to create unnatural motion.

Once the sordid crime that needs avenging is revealed, "Gothika's" scares lapse and its conclusion devolves into standard 'victim-fights-back' fare, but an epilogue suggests that Dr. Grey may be back to settle more scores. She may not have believed in ghosts, but they obviously believe in her.

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