Halloween came a little late this year from Dark Castle, the outfit
that's been making late October haunts since 1999's The House on Haunted
Hill. Dark Castle's 13 Ghosts was a visual bone-crusher hobbled
by a lame script, and last year's Ghost Ship was a creakily standard
haunter made memorable by a few sequences that turned it into a blood opera.
Gothika, starring Halle Berry, she of the box office clout, high babe-factor,
critical respect, and lucrative cosmetics spokeswoman contracts, should be the
movie that pushes Dark Castle's spook show from the shadows into the spotlight.
And it probably will be, in spite of the fact that Gothika is easily
Dark Castle's least interesting release.
Gothika is mostly devoid of the kind of "kick me" signs that
attract the barbs of movie critics annoyed that they lost the coin toss and
were forced to sit through a horror movie instead of getting cozy with the latest
Sean Penn film. Berry's performance is fine. The dialogue is fine. The pacing
and editing are fine. The effects are fine.
Just so we're clear, I'm using the word "fine" the way most people
do when someone asks "how are you doing?"
Halle Berry plays Dr. Miranda Gray, a psychiatrist who blacks out one night
and wakes up on the wrong side of the glass in the same lunatic asylum where
she worked. Of course, you know the type of lunatic asylum I'm talking about.
In movies, there's only one kind of wacky farm: the "You say you're not
crazy? Don't worry. All you have to do is spend some time in here, and you will
be." kind. Lights buzz like flies, the décor is concentration camp chic,
and the most important step on the road to rehabilitation is to be stripped
of any sense of control or individuality.
The thing is, a sanitarium should be the perfect setting for a horror movie,
but Gothika never exploits its full potential. Sanity, insanity, reality,
paranoia, conspiracy, hallucination, perspective. These themes are touched upon,
but they never reach a deep or feverish pitch. Probably the scariest moment
in Gothika is when a cowed Miranda, dressed in her newly acquired nut-job
uniform, walks timidly into the common area populated by inmates she once had
authority over. Then Penelope Cruz, purring like a sandpaper-throated Siamese,
tells Miranda that now that she's on the inside, no one will ever listen to
her, no one will ever believe her, and the more she tries to prove that she's
not crazy, the crazier she will seem. It's a moment ripe with world-upside-down
shiver, but the Gothika storyline is too simple and straightforward to
force any real sense of distortion and disorientation on its audience.
The fun of watching a horror movie is being blindsided, and Gothika
does a good job of blindsiding you with jump-out-and-go-boo scares, but the
answers to Gothika's larger mysteries are thoroughly unsurprising. In
fact, the answers to the "why" mysteries are ho-hummingly obvious,
and the details of "what Miranda discovers" are so clichéd that the
only one who's shocked is Miranda. If I'm being cagey about the exact nature
of these cliches, it's because I could ruin all but one of the movie's "big
surprises" for you by simply naming two common objects, or by listing the
two horror movie sub-genres that Gothika has scrambled together.
There's one "big surprise" left after "what Miranda discovers".
Or it could have been a surprise if one of the characters wasn't shown surfing
the Internet in a scene that takes all the ambiguity out of the "final
big surprise" scene.
Watching Gothika is like playing poker with someone who holds his cards
face-out: It's almost impossible not to cheat.