Because someone is dead doesnt mean theyre gone.
Running Time: 98 minutes
UK Certificate: 15
Country: United States
Matthieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine’ (1995), mapping out one of the most powerful human emotions in the divided suburbs of Paris, was a truly explosive directorial debut, and its harsh visual style, surreal flourishes and harrowing impact assured its place as a key film of the 1990s. Kassovitz followed this with the rather disappointing ‘Crimson Rivers’, a stylish if messy checklist of over-the-top thriller moods that seemed entirely contrived as a calling card to the Hollywood mainstream. Sure enough, Hollywood took notice and invited Kassovitz to make his first American film, and the result is ‘Gothika’ – a po-faced pastiche of familiar horror-movie motifs which has so much style that it would appear to have frightened any substance away.
Halle Berry stars as Dr Miranda Grey, who is a psychiatrist at the Woodward Penitentiary for the criminally insane, working alongside her older husband Douglas (Charles S. Dutton) and young admirer Dr Pete Graham (Robert Downey Jr, who knows a thing or two about the inside of prisons). One night driving home alone through torrential rains, she encounters a naked, distressed girl who appears to burst into flames – and Miranda wakes up three days later locked in a cell of the Woodward Penitentiary as Graham’s patient, accused of the vicious murder of her own husband and unsure of her own sanity, as she struggles to remember what happened and to work out the identity of the violent, ghostly girl who keeps leaving her the mysterious message ‘Not alone’.
While there may be something vaguely gothic about the stormbound Woodward Penitentiary, this is hardly enough to justify the film’s title which, with its quirky pseudo-Greek inflection, seems to have been chosen merely for some kind of ill-defined spookiness. Still, the arbitrariness of the title encapsulates perfectly a more general principle of construction underlying the film. For ‘Gothika’ is like a compendium of some horror fan’s favourite scenes, all stitched together with little concern for any overall coherence. There is an exotic woman (Penelope Cruz) claiming to have been raped by the devil, just like ‘Angel Heart’. There is a sane person trapped in an asylum, just like ‘Shock Corridor’. There is a rational psychiatrist forced to confront the irrational, just like ‘They’ (a film which also inspires a frightening sequence in a swimming pool here). The unrestful dead seek redress from beyond the grave, just like Ringu, The Sixth Sense and countless other ghost stories. There is a significant tattoo, just like Red Dragon and, er, Tattoo. There is a woman in need of rescue from a torture chamber, just like The Silence of the Lambs and The Cell. Oh, and there is an open shower scene, just like every women’s prison exploitation film ever made.
The upshot is that ‘Gothika’ is a collection of creepy moments, carefully manipulated moods and well-edited shocks, but its ill-fitting parts make it lumber along clumsily like the granddaddy of gothic, Frankenstein’s monster. In fact, it could almost be taken for a horror spoof, were it not for the complete absence of jokes.
If ‘La Haine’ was a film of raw passion, ‘Gothika’ is a cynical product of emptiness and ennui – and the real bogey-man here, the one who truly destroys souls and preys upon youth, is Hollywood itself.
It's Got: Penelope Cruz telling Halle Berry "your brain is the problem"
It Needs: For all its moody moments to add up to something coherent and engaging (even the atmospheric asylum setting is, when you think about it, largely irrelevant to the basic plot).
Kassovitz must have been mad (or possessed) to assemble this lumbering, derivative collection of creepy moments, manipulated moods and cheesey shocks.