Gothika
starring Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz and Robert Downey Jr.
3 stars

review by Stephen Notley

I'm here to praise Gothika with faint damnation; it's not at all the lamest horror movie I've seen this year. Indeed despite its meaningless title some parts of it could even be said to work.

Here's the notion: Halle Berry is Miranda, a happy, well-adjusted psychologist at a women's criminal psychiatric ward. She's married to Charles Dutton and gently parries the clumsy romantic aspersions of twitchy co-worker Robert Downey Jr. Everything appears great until one night she drives home and almost hits a girl on the road; she goes to talk to the girl, who screams and bursts into flames. Cut to Halle in a psychiatric cell being told she's been there for three days and, oh yeah, during her little blank spell she chopped her husband up with an axe.

So what we have here is a pretty reasonable setup for a psychological thriller, a mindscrew story where the doctor suddenly finds herself on the other side facing all the same prejudices of craziness she dished out when she was the one with the clipboard.
Is she crazy? She certainly acts crazy, slipping immediately into the role of insane inmate, screaming at the orderlies, yelling at Robert Downey Jr. who's suddenly become suave and evil-seeming. But obviously somebody is screwing with her. Who? Robert Downey Jr.? Everybody? Just how nuts is she? There's enough meat in the concept to build a twisty thriller in the same vein of Frailty or Identity; we probably didn't really need the ghost.

But ghost there is, a fairly low-key one by recent ghost-movie standards (even though in one scene she did startle the shit out of me more than any other ghost has in recent memory). You can't really fault the filmmakers for including a ghost, but once you put her in there the story inevitably starts pulling away from the genuinely interesting stuff (Halle as "sane" former doctor trying to uncover the truth from within a system she understands but is trapped by) towards more typical haunted-house business.

As haunted houses go, Gothika is fairly creepy. It all goes down in one of those typical Hollywood movie lunatic asylums, the kind where they keep all the inmates nice and insane by never turning on the lights. Thus we have a lot of Halle Berry looking intense and worried as she tiptoes down various darkened corridors catching glimpses of the ghost.

Halle is pretty good; she's serious enough to allow you to take everything sort of seriously, particularly when she's up against Penelope Cruz as a twitchy delusional inmate. She just might be crazy enough to be imagining everything, which is interesting.

Unfortunately, she's not imagining everything, which leads to a conclusion thatů well, let's say it leaves some stuff kinda dangling, like how Halle should end up happy and out on the street after everything that goes down. Couple that with a rather ill-chosen special effect for the climax and you get a movie that slumps a bit at the end, taking-it-seriouslywise. 

Still, as a thriller Gothika thrills here and there, and as a ghost story it ghosts okay on occasion, and as I say, it's not the worst thing I've seen by a long ways.
 

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