Gothika (2003), Dir. Mathieu Kassovitz.

Dark Castle Entertainment

Starring: Halle Berry, Penélope Cruz, Robert Downey Jr.

Reviewed by Djibril

This peculiarly titled (on which more below) film is above all atmospheric and scary—unrelentingly so, I left the cinema with aching shoulders from being so tense. Although I have many criticisms and quibbles, this is going to be a broadly positive review. There may be serious issues, as critics have been quick to point out, but this reviewer is more forgiving of problems with originality and consistency, than he is of films that are morally vacuous, unintelligent, and poorly executed (acted and directed); and this film is none of those. In fact it is Kassovitz's slightly offbeat direction and the high quality cast that rescue this film from being another Dark Castle shocker-by-numbers.

Gothika does contain a great many of the hallmarks of your formulaic fright-fest, with horrific details including: rape; murder—the most gory scenes being in slowly developing flashback—; possession; diabolic imagery; false imprisonment; forced medication; an innocent character believed by no-one and thought to be mad—to the extent of doubting her own sanity. Many of these features descend to the level of cliché: there is a creepy Irish nurse who tells Berry to 'wash your sins away' in the prison shower; the ghost appears with muted colours and in stop-motion; the ghost in the back seat of the car; the red-herring of a creepy, suspect character in authority throughout. (The twist that they missed, in this film, would have been to have the dead girl's father briefly the subject of the audience's suspicions—he has his unsympathetic moments, but is never developed in this way.)

Some of these horror staples are extremely effectively used, however. My favourite moments included: being frightened by the bird in the barn; the girl in the road; the poltergeist violence; the slasher in the shower; the swimming pool (you were just waiting for something scary to happen there); the blurring of reality, as we see through Berry's eyes and are at times ourselves unsure of the dividing line between drug-induced hallucination, supernatural vision, and the real world. The soundtrack to this film is effective, although occasionally the music false-starts or cuts suddenly; the disjointed music and sound effects add to the eerie atmosphere.

About that title: there have been many complaints about the seemingly pointless title: what does Gothika have to do with a film about a hard penitentiary and a haunted psychiatrist? The various stars and producers have tried to answer this question in interviews, but basically the title is evocative, suggesting a dark atmosphere and designed to attract a certain demographic to watch the film. Not that this is an inappropriate title, necessarily: most of the film is set in an asylum that looks like a Gothic mansion, at night, illuminated either by flashes of lightning or flickering electric lights caused by a faulty generator. Even beyond this literal appearance, the institutions portrayed in this movie are antiquated: there is no forensic science (see below); psychiatric practice is non-existent; prison security is entirely un-computerised; patients are kept in solitary confinement or crude, dark cells in damp corridors; and the clichéd maltreatment makes One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest looked like a balanced portrayal of the mental health establishment. The film almost inhabits a fantasy world somewhere between the twenty-first, twentieth, and nineteenth centuries. So 'gothic', yes.

Pedantic as this makes me seem, I do feel the need to point out some of this film's weak spots and inconsistencies. Some of these feel as though they could have been the fault either of the cutting-room or the script-writer (but neither of these exonerates the director, of course): the car accident at the start that nobody seems to have noticed or remarked upon; the lack of a forensic report on the 'suicide' girl who had in fact been raped, tortured, kept prisoner for weeks and shot in a snuff movie, and then thrown in the river—would no one notice that's not a typical suicide?—; Berry's quick recovery from her extreme beating by the poltergeist; Berry's unfeasibly easy escape from the high-security prison, and then going straight home where no one thinks to look for her; the scars that disappear half-way through; the gas explosion that seems only to burn up one person, for some reason. The final confession was also unconvincing (and predictable); and the psychobabble uttered by supposedly professional psychiatrists was disappointing.

The end of this film is open to question: Berry seems to have become some kind of a ghost-medium for the restless dead, but then seems to just walk away? Are we to imagine her ignoring the cry for help from a dead boy in the road and heading off into a moral vacuum, or will she become a spiritualist helping the dead to be avenged? Neither is a truly satisfactory answer, and one somehow wishes the question had not been begged (although I suppose it was an attempt to leave the story open for a sequel). Disappointingly, the only moral message the film seems to offer is in the closing Berry-Cruz dialogue: 'I have learned to listen.' If the idea is that a psychiatrist, by having 'gone native' and become an asylum inmate, suddenly has a much better empathy for her patients, then this message is a naïve one: it is the ability to retain objective distance and professional manner that enables a psychologist or counsellor to help the patient. (The Berry-Cruz relationship is a strong and complex one, however, evolving from doctor-patient, through fellow inmates, to friends or at least confidantes.)

It is only fair to end this review of a film that I basically enjoyed by discussing a few redeeming features. For one, I found it very refreshing that, unlike Sixth Sense, for example, the ghosts in this film are creepy to the end, never becoming Casper-the-friendly-ghost, nice, and harmless. At one point in the film a change of genre is flagged by the sudden disappearance of atmospheric music and strobe lighting and the move into daylight: this is when we briefly leave behind the gothic horror for the (far more frightening) serial-killer/snuff-movie genre. The script may not be the cleverest, but the direction (like that of Kassovitz's Les Rivières Pourpres) is more than competent.

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