Robin Clifford 
Laura Clifford 

A mysterious and unnerving encounter with a strange young girl on a deserted, rain swept road one night proves to be profound for Dr. Miranda Gray (Halle Berry), a brilliant and highly respected criminal psychologist. The next day, at least she thinks it’s the next day, she wakes to find herself on the other side of the glass, a patient in the hospital where she was a doctor. Worst still, she is told that she murdered her husband, Douglas (Charles S. Dutton). Now, she must prove her innocence or descend into madness in “Gothika.”

Miranda is treating a dangerously disturbed patient, Chloe (Penelope Cruz), a young woman who murdered her father and, now, hears voices and claims that she is raped by the Devil in her cell at night. Of course, the pragmatic and logical Dr. Gray believes the claims are delusional, writes up her notes, takes a swim and then heads home, but not before trading banter with her colleague, Dr. Pete Graham (Robert Downey Jr.). On the way she runs into a roadblock and is told, by Sheriff Bob Ryan (John Carroll Lynch), her husband’s best friend, that a sink hole blocks the way and tells her of another route to take.

Miranda is talking to Doug on her cell phone as she crosses a covered bridge. The signal breaks up and, distracted, Miranda doesn’t see a strange girl standing in the road. She just misses the child and lands up in a ditch. Still, she is a doctor and she limps back to the wet, terrified child. She tries to help the girl and…something happens. The next thing Miranda realizes is that she is in an observation room in the Woodward Penitentiary for Woman, the place that she works. Then, her colleague, Pete, tells her that her husband is dead and all evidence points to her as the brutal murderer. Suddenly, Miranda Gray’s life is turned upside down and her keepers question everything she believes is true. She must prove the unprovable or go mad.

French actor/director Mathieu helms “Gothika” from an original screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez, which turns out to be one of the scariest movies out of Hollywood that I have seen in some time. While there were some problems with the story – I figured out, early on, the big mystery and there are plot devices that make you scratch your head – the overall product is a truly, at times, scary movie done with intelligence and craftsmanship. Even the obligatory fake out scare (you know, the one where the cat usually leaps out of nowhere) is done with a twist. The smartness of the story helps to gloss over the flaws.

The talented cast does a fine job in fully developing their characters. This is a horror movie so don’t expect to see “Oscar worthy” performances but the actors succeed in making them a huge cut above the norm. Halle Berry is up for the physically demanding role of Miranda – the actress even suffered a broken wrist while doing a scene with Downey Jr., bringing the production to a halt for a month. Miranda’s intelligence and psychology training allow her to see beyond the normal world and accept the supernatural. The beautiful Berry is not given a glamorous look (don’t expect her to walk out of the sea in an orange bikini) and she uses the opportunity to flesh out her character.

Of the supporting cast, Penelope Cruz gets the most out of her role as Chloe, the suffering psychotic who really believes that the Devil regularly rapes and beats her. The irrationality of her claims, in the end, are all too rational and Cruz creates a truly sympathetic character with little screen time. Robert Downey Jr. should have been a sinister element, even if just a fake out. Instead, his kind and compassionate Dr. Pete remains that way from start to finish. Charles S. Dutton is miscast as Dr. Doug Gray and I didn’t believe his marriage to the vivacious Miranda. John Carroll Lynch is outstanding as Sheriff Bob and gives an arc to his character.

Although the story begins to lose steam as the big finale approaches, the technical crew keeps things moving at a fever pitch right to the end. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique keeps his cameras busy as they wind through the labyrinth of the prison, usually under cold, blinking fluorescent lights. Production design by Graham “Grace” Walker makes Woodward Penitentiary one of the major characters in “Gothika” with the use of dark colors and the cold sterility of the asylum. Music, by John Ottman, helps to build and maintain the suspense right through the film.

“Gothika” is not a great horror film but it is a darn good one that had a jaded old movie critic like me on the edge of my seat. And, sometimes out of it. It is certainly a major improvement over the typical horror drek like “The ‘Saw” remake. Kudos to the cast and crew. I give it a B+.

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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