Like his Euro thriller “The Crimson Rivers,” French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s English-language debut “Gothika” travels well-chartered terrain with more technical prowess and visual style than narrative freshness. True to its title, this dark cocktail of serial killing, sexual mayhem and paranormal horror creates a creepy atmosphere and foreboding mood. But the story of a psychiatrist who becomes a patient in the ward where she works is hampered by thinly developed characters and pedestrian plotting. Horror fans should ensure decent opening numbers, but pic lacks the hipper, more youthful edge that fueled recent hit “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
In both “Crimson Rivers” and his much reviled Cannes entry “Assassin(s),” Kassovitz has shown skill in building suspense and orchestrating shock. But, unlike his leaner, more focused breakout film “La Haine,” the director too often compromises this with a tendency toward lurid, overwrought nastiness.
While “Gothika” mostly succeeds in tempering those instincts, the film makes a half-baked attempt to sketch in psychological depth rather than just stepping into genre skin without pretensions in the manner of previous, more playful B-movie Dark Castle spook-a-thons like “House on Haunted Hill” and “Thirteen Ghosts.” More than those films, this new entry resembles the ponderously gruesome “The Cell.” And Halle Berry makes almost as unconvincing a psychiatric authority as Jennifer Lopez, though she does consent to being far more deglamorized.
Berry plays Miranda Grey, a doctor who treats patients in the psych ward of the Woodward Penitentiary for Woman, a castle-like hilltop fortress framed by mist and raging thunderstorms. Chief administrator is Miranda’s husband Doug (Charles S. Dutton), whom she admires and loves faithfully, much to the disappointment of pining colleague Pete (Robert Downey Jr.). Among Miranda’s patients is convicted murderess Chloe (Penelope Cruz), whose accounts of satanic torture are dismissed as delusional.
Driving home through pounding rain, Miranda takes a detour and swerves off the deserted road to avoid hitting a young girl (Kathleen Mackey). She approaches to find the girl covered in blood and wounds, but without speaking, the figure bursts into flames. Miranda regains lucidity three days later in a cell at Woodward with no memory of the events of that night. Pete informs her that Doug is dead and overwhelming evidence tags her as the murderer.
Miranda is plagued by fragments of memory and unnerving visitations from an invisible spirit, which becomes less benign when it carves the words “Not Alone” into the doc’s arm and slams her violently around the cell. Miranda then recognizes a photo of Rachel, the dead daughter of a prison staffer (Bernard Hill), as the girl from her visions.
She escapes from Woodward and returns to her house, where the events of her husband’s murder are replayed in effectively visceral, reverse-order style, recalling “Irreversible.” Led by clues to the farmhouse her husband was restoring, Miranda makes the horrifying discovery of a series of sadistic sexual crimes. Rachel’s spirit then steers the doc to discover that more than one person was involved in the macabre sleazefest, giving credence to Chloe’s accounts of prison rape.
Original screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez (“Judas Kiss,” upcoming “The Big Bounce”) ably appropriates the Gothic staple of traditional, rational thought conflicting with superstitious beliefs and the supernatural. But while the film delivers plenty of chills and sudden starts, it makes a lumpy blend of too many elements — amnesia, possession, sexual sadism, psychiatric investigation and whodunit.
The credibility of both Berry and Downey as shrinks is undermined by their elementary-psych dialogue and lack of intellectual heft. In her first solo starring role, Berry goes from pensive and generically professional to distraught and traumatized, but the role seems a poor fit. Downey can usually be relied upon to spark any scene he’s in, and his appearance does seem to usher in a certain cheeky spirit. But his character here is so ambiguously drawn and so falsely signposted for villainous revelations that Pete never satisfyingly takes shape. In a limited role, Cruz adds a serviceably malevolent edge to Chloe’s apparent madness.
D.p. Matthew Libatique shoots in a prowling, ultra-mobile style. He creates a grimly atmospheric environment of cold blues, flickering electrical lighting and ominous shadows, reaping visual rewards from the long, forbidding corridors and glass-vaulted doors of production designer Graham Walker’s prison set, the death camp-style communal showers and, in particular, the swimming pool where Miranda exercises and later hides out during her escape. Editor Yannick Kergoat keeps the pace up with lots of sharp cuts, and composer John Ottman contributes a muscular, sinister score, working within a densely layered soundtrack.