Gothika dips in for what is practically old horror stock footage, borrowing here, ripping off there from better movies of its genre and others. In doing so, director Mathieu Kassovitz creates a film almost totally unoriginal both in premise and in execution. Strangely enough, it might still scare the pants off you.
Slick and supremely styled, Gothika stars Halle Berry as Miranda Grey, a criminal psychiatrist who goes insane and murders her husband. An early movie kiss might be her motivation. Her husband is a fairly fully figured man and when they lock lips he looks unbelievably like an orca whale attempting to swallow a small, sexy minnow.
Miranda however, does not remember the murder and in a weird twist ends up in her own psychiatric ward, only now on the other side of the glass. There she’s tortured by the supernatural, ghosts doing what they always do, trick the living into finding their killer. Only this ghost has a funny way of asking for assistance, since it succeeds only in beating the living tar out of her.
Predictably, Miranda is not the type to believe in supernatural mumbo jumbo. Berry does a barely passable job of working through her stiff of a character, as she tries to use cool logic to reason her way out of a clearly illogical situation. Unfortunately, the casting director of Gothika failed to use the same logic when casting his leading role. Berry is uncomfortable and uninteresting as a supernaturally terrorized doctor. She looks lost spouting out psychiatric wisdom. When she proclaims an abiding belief in science, she sounds more like she’s giving her soul to some cultish religion than firming up a faith in cold hard facts. What Berry does manage, is to reprise her Oscar winning performance in Monster’s Ball by working in many opportunities to cry and pound on glass. That kind of unabashed hatred for Plexiglas nabbed her an Oscar statue, but seems far less convincing in Gothika.
The real highlight here is Penelope Cruz in a fairly small supporting role as an institutionalized girl who believes she is being raped by the devil. While Berry is busy playing a confused screamer, Cruz munches on movie scenery in a memorable and sometimes haunting performance filled with “satanic meanderings.” The same cannot be said of Robert Downey Jr., who co-stars as a sympathetic colleague and out of place love interest. Gothika fumbles around hinting at a romantic relationship between Downey and Berry’s characters, only to prove there isn’t one. Downey’s character (who can’t seem to decide whether to drug Miranda or kiss her) turns out to be nothing more than scene filler, an abandoned plotline that someone never quite got around to taking out of the script.
Sharp styling and a decent enough mystery do manage to keep Gothika interesting, even when relying on cheap misdirection and overblown musical cues to provide “scary moments”. Enlightened viewers will discover that in Gothika, exciting things only happen when the scary music (no doubt downloaded from ScaryMusic.com) stops. Thirty minutes in, I was able to pick out exactly when the big scares would happen by how quiet the soundtrack got.
Yes, it does rip off about a dozen other movies, like The Ring and M. Night’s The Sixth Sense (I’d swear there was even a cameo by Harry Potter’s pet owl), but in doing so manages to put all that re-treaded suspense into a package that’ll probably make you jump a time or two. Gothika even has an empowering message for women: If you win, get a haircut. Oh, also, fat men are evil. This, like Halle Berry’s Oscar, isn’t a painful experience but will quickly be forgotten.