It was sad, but it had to be done. After a steady diet of horror films throughout my, uh, youth, I went through a voluntary detox/rehab period to rid myself of the addiction. (Horror flicks bring on gray hair and wrinkles, doncha know?) Actually, it wasn’t that hard. Rare is the truly well-made horror movie and I had already caught on to the fact that, in terms of scare factors (violence, gore, boo!), less is definitely more.
The story — coherent, imaginative and satisfying — should fill in the gaps, but few directors seem to bother anymore. Case in point: “Gothika.” It starts out full of promise, only to soon run out of fuel, leaving the cast stranded in the middle of a horror-flick wasteland of scary cliches, a nonsensical plot and artery-hardening lines.
Not the best of vehicles for the likes of Academy Award winner Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz and Robert Downey Jr. (Is it my imagination, or do they look like they were sooo ready to call it quits — only the contract clause didn’t let them? Now that’s what I call scary.) Halle plays Dr. Miranda Grey, a psychiatrist working in a women’s correctional institute. One of her patients is Chloe (Cruz), who has been imprisoned after killing her abusive stepfather. Now she tells Miranda that she is being raped almost nightly by “the devil.” Miranda writes this off as hallucination due to excessive medication and she also notes that the other patients are being given far too many pills. She has a chat with the warden, Doug (Charles Dutton), who also happens to be her husband, but he casually dismisses Chloe’s story with a creepy smile before going off on an errand.
It’s nighttime, in the middle of a storm. Miranda politely declines a dinner invite from her flirty colleague, Pete (Downey Jr.), goes for a swim in the prison pool (do such things really exist?) and drives home. On the way, she almost runs over a young girl, standing in the pelting rain, wearing nothing but a white slip. Miranda steps out of the car, offers to help and . . .
Unfortunately, the opening sequence is the best part of the movie; everything that happens afterward never quite matches the mood and expertly paced storytelling of these first 20 minutes. Everyone seems vaguely threatening, or capable of some kind of evil (especially the men). And Miranda comes off as a relentless career-track medico who would rather study files than face the real problems of her patients. In the textbook horror scenario, she’s the perfect candidate for sudden schizophrenia, murder victim or secret serial killer.
What the screenplay (by Sebastian Guttierez) decrees for her is that in the next scene she inexplicably wakes up in the prison cell of her workplace, under arrest for the slaying of her husband. Pete has been assigned as her doctor, and Miranda is powerless to convince him of both her sanity and innocence. It doesn’t help that she’s tortured by visions of the girl standing in the rain (who, it turns out, has been dead for four years), causing her to black out or writhe in agonized fear.
Imprisoning a doctor in her former place of work is just one of the many “don’t ask why” phenomena in this picture. In the world of “Gothika,” logic is never an issue; the issue here is to get some good agonized writhing out of glamorous Hollywood actresses. If the deglamourization of babes were key criteria for a good movie, “Gothika” would warrant a five-star rating. Berry and Cruz spend almost their entire screen-time in green prison garb and pale foundation with deep, hard lines wedged in between their brows. Berry, in particular, is required to scream, yell or go into fits, complete with frothing mouth and rolled-up eyes — that is, when she’s not bleary-eyed from weeping.
As it is, even Berry’s gutsy performance can’t pull this film from its wreckage of inconsistency and total absence of logic.
Director Mathieu Kassovitz’s reputation as an up-and-coming indie filmmaker with “La haine” (1995) has been floundering ever since he shifted gears to genre films with less than illustrious results (“Les Rivieres pourpres”). In “Gothika,” he has a knack for making you jump, but he works the same tricks with weary repetition. In the end, you come to hate the sight and sound of the fluorescent lights in Miranda’s cell flickering. (This is the sign that she’s being visited by the ghost of the girl in the rain . . . and for her to curl up in the fetal position and go into being-tortured mode.)
If “Gothika” can captivate an audience, its going to be Japanese. The absence of substantial narrative, its heavy reliance on bad weather and creepy ambience, the recurring image of the girl ghost — these are things we can totally relate to in terms of horror. Now if only the ghost had straight black hair and was wearing a kimono. Next time, Kassovitz-san?