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Gothika (2003)


Having won her Oscar, banged Bond, played a superhero, and had her scrapes with the tabloids, there was only one glaring omission in Halle Berry’s Hollywood resume (besides making her London theatrical debut), and that is: horror movie scream queen. Sure, Gothika‘s not Scream or Halloween 17: Chucky’s Divorcee – there’s a little more to it than that – but a good part of Ms. Berry’s screen time is taken up with flailing her arms and screaming wildly while being pinned down by mental health aides and an injection-happy nurse. All in all, she’s quite successful at it; this may not seem like the highest praise, but since you never quite know what kind of manure the studios are going to try and pass off as a horror or thriller flick these days, one has to lower the bar.

Gothika does its damn best to convince us that Berry, as Miranda Grey, is quite the serious prison therapist, sitting straight-faced through her sessions with insane convict Chloe Sava. (That’s more than the audience can do, watching poor Penélope Cruz, as Chloe, actually try to act.) Dour-faced as she is, Grey seems to love her job, having a loving husband (Charles S. Dutton) as her boss at the women’s prison, and a funny co-worker (Robert Downey Jr.) who has a pretty serious crush on her. Then, driving home one rainy night, she crashes her car to avoid a girl standing in the rain. She then walks up to the crazed-looking girl, who then bursts into flames. Grey wakes up in one of the observation cells at the prison three days later, unsure if what happened was a dream, only to be told that she’s been there three days and that she killed her husband.

Following this is a fairly well-crafted portrayal of Grey’s quick plunge into the murky side of insanity that she’s always observed coolly and rationally from across a therapist’s notepad (even if it does disregard the fact that no prison would ever release into its general population a former doctor at that same prison). Director and occasional actor Mathieu Kassovitz (making his Hollywood debut here after La Haine and The Crimson Rivers) does a credible job here, washing the picture in ominous sound and giving every surface an icy glint, stretching some takes out so long that the audience is almost guaranteed to jump out of their seats at the slightest bump. There might not be much in the script that is terribly original – and the more the film turns into a mystery, with Grey following clues provided by the ghostly girl who now haunts her, the more derivative it becomes – but the film nevertheless provides more than its share of good shocks.

However, for all its glossy sheen and pedigreed cast, Gothika can’t quite recover from the fact that the scares it provides are of the grab-your-boyfriend’s-arm-and-then-laugh variety, as opposed to the quieter, psychological sort of horror it thinks it is providing; this isn’t The Sixth Sense, no matter how gloomy everybody acts. Which is all well and good, one just wishes that the filmmakers would have been a little more acknowledging of their creation’s pulpy roots.

The new special edition DVD includes commentary from director Kassovitz and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a Limp Bizkit video (plus it’s making-of vignette), documentaries, a virtual tour of the set, and — bizarrely — an episode of Punk’d in which Halle Berry gets the titular treatment, all of which is presented in a confusing but innovative menu system.

Scary movie.