Gothika (2003)

Starring: Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr, PenÚlope Cruz, Charles Dutton, Bernard Hill

Directed by: Matthieu Kassovitz

Rating: 1 2 3

Halle Berry as Dr Miranda Grey

Boy, was I looking forward to this film! The trailer scared the pants off me: 'At last!' I thought, 'A genuinely freaky Hollywood movie!' Not only that, but it looked as if the film dealt with one of my favourite horror themes: the dissolution of the boundary dividing fantasy from reality. Prepare to be seriously freaked out.

Er, yeah. Make that: prepare to be a bit freaked out but mostly, well, a bit disappointed.

Halle Berry plays Dr Miranda Grey, a psychiatrist at Woodward Penitentiary, a sprawling Dickensian madhouse in the middle of an American nowhere that appears to be in the grip of a constant thunderstorm. The madhouse comes complete with dark corridors, flickering lights, syringes oozing sedatives and narrow gurneys strapped with ominous restraints. Renfield is probably lurking in a dingy cell somewhere - which is great if you're watching Bram Stoker's Dracula, but rather a bar to credibility in a film that dabbles in the cold clinical world of modern psychology, and you can't help thinking that a squeaky clean antiseptic hell like the asylum that holds Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 would be far more scary. But then again, the film is called Gothika. Perhaps it's supposed to be am Addam's family style joke.

Er, yeah.

Robert Downey Jr as Dr Pete Graham, the most unsympathetic doctor since Crippen...

Jokes don't exactly come thick and fast in Gothika. In fact it's probably one of the most po-faced movies I've ever seen. Which presumably means that we're supposed to take seriously the fact that the charming Dr Grey:

  1. works in this time warp of a hospital
  2. is happily married to the big fat hospital boss, Dr Doug Grey, who just screams Dodgy Bloke at us the minute we clap eyes on him
  3. has turned down Robert Downey Jr
  4. gets incarcerated in said asylum, blithely abandoned to walk, talk and, er, shower with all her former patients.

What was that noise? No, it wasn't a thing going bump in the night, it was my incredulity snapping.

Boo! It's the ghost!

Anyway. Dr Grey leaves the hospital (in a thunderstorm, of course) but has to take a different route home because of the terrible weather. Crossing a bridge, she swerves to avoid a young girl standing in the middle of the road. She gets out of the car to see if the girl is all right. The girl starts screaming and bursts into flames. Next thing Dr Grey knows, she's back in the mental hospital. On the wrong side of the bars. Dr Pete Graham (Robert Downey Jr), possibly the most unsympathetic doctor since Harold Shipman, informs her that during her blackout she has hacked her husband to death with an axe, smearing a terrible message on the wall in his blood: Not Alone.

Mama, we're all crazy now...

But did she do it? Is she a deranged psycho? Or was she, in fact, 'not alone', but possessed by the ghost of the girl on the bridge?

Now, this is where it could have got interesting, where a director with the sly finesse of Polanski would have let us balance on the knife edge of sanity alongside Miranda, caught between the devil of insanity and the deep blue sea of the supernatural. But no, the ghost is all too real, and, okay, kinda scary looking - well, some people in the cinema screamed - although the 'boo she's behind you' appearances recur too frequently and quickly lose their power to make you jump.

Ride my horsemen... oh no, wrong film. She died four years ago! Hmm...

The girl, it turns out, is the daughter of another doctor at the hospital (Bernard Hill, who appears to be reading his lines off the autocue, wondering how he went from playing Theoden King to a characterless psychiatrist who only appears in three measly scenes) and, guess what, she died four years ago. Well of course she bloody did. People who appear in the middle of the road during thunderstorms and cause drivers to skid off the road always died four years ago. As far as the audience is concerned, there can be no doubt Dr Grey is seeing dead people.

But unlike The Sixth Sense, there is no sudden twist in the tale to leave us all reeling. As Dr Grey escapes and starts to piece together the mystery, we remain one step ahead of her, hoping we're wrong and that the film will surprise us after all. I won't give the plot away but, well, it doesn't.

Perhaps I'm missing something here. Perhaps, with its creepy asylums and dead girls calling for vengeance, it's supposed to be a clever parody. In which case I just don't get it.

And another thing... aside from the unconvincing mix of Hammer Horror gothic and modern psychobabble, the portrayal of women in Gothika is depressingly old fashioned. The madhouse is a patriarchal kingdom ruled by men (Miranda is the only female doctor), in which women are passive victims, herded about like lost sheep by over-zealous, starchy nurses denied any semblance of femininity. Is this supposed to be a microcosm for the world, in which men hold all the aces, and women can only succeed if they try to be like men?

Penelope Cruz as crazy Chloe

Dr Grey's murderous patient Chloe (played with a deft mix of innocence and evil by PenÚlope Cruz) is the first to point out that once you become mad, you become invisible, something which Dr Grey learns the hard way. Is the film then trying to make a serious point about the way we treat people with mental disabilities then? Or am I just trying to make the film more interesting?

Er, yeah.

Okay, so maybe I'm being a bit harsh. It's certainly not a dull film, and, at the beginning anyway, there are plenty of shocks to keep your heart racing. It's just you can never allow yourself to completely suspend all disbelief and go with the flow.

He's behind you! Drs Grey and Grey reflect on the truth...

On the plus side, Gothika does raise some cool ideas about sanity and madness. Before he's violently hacked to death, Doug explains that the mental patient sees the psychiatrist as a distorted mirror image of herself, suggesting an interesting parallel with the way in which the self is constructed in response to outward influences and the way that reality can become fragmented and unrecognisable when refracted through the lens of madness. Later on, the mirror reflects a dark and terrible truth when Miranda escapes and returns to the scene of her crime, where her memory begins to come back: she sees herself killing her husband, wallowing in a bath of blood then emerging to gaze in the mirror. Brilliantly, the image of Miranda as murderer, Miranda as detective, and the ghostly girl who has possessed her all collide in the mirror image: the glass becomes the space in which self and other, the id, the ego and the superego, come together in a startling moment of self-recognition which allows Miranda to glimpse the truth at last.

But good ideas don't make a good film and they also don't make up for the fact that this is a film that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be: gothic horror flick or psychological thriller? Carrie or Silence of the Lambs? In trying to be both, it sadly falls a little flat.

The end of the film seems to be setting the scene for a sequel. Likely to materialise?

Er, yeah.

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