'Gothika': Never Has Death Seemed So Lifeless

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2003

Halle Berry's natural radiance and spectacular bone structure are largely hidden in "Gothika," a horror thriller of the "Don't Go in There" subgenre and a pastiche of other, better movies.

Her face ashen and covered by curtains of lank, lifeless hair, Berry slogs her way through this unsavory experience, generating sympathy if not interest. She plays a prison psychiatrist who becomes embroiled in a murder, and whose connection with a mysterious, spectral girl leads her to the killer. The movie bears no relation whatsoever to its title, except perhaps in the gloomy architecture of the prison, which also features a helpfully dodgy generator (never underestimate the power of outages to create a mood). It's one of those movies whose studio pitch can be heard in every scene: "It's 'The Snake Pit' meets 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'What Lies Beneath' with a kicker straight out of 'The Sixth Sense'!"

If that's a presumed formula for some kind of sure-fire Hollywood hit, it's also a recipe for a largely flat, derivative filmgoing experience. Director Mathieu Kassovitz does manage to inject some visual style into an enterprise dominated by a gray palette, grim demeanor and sadistic sexual edge: He represents the Berry character's disintegrating mental state with watery, rippled special effects that resemble a Francis Bacon painting, and there's one sublime moment when a character is hiding from pursuers in a swimming pool and a tiny bubble on the surface of the water pops just before they could notice it and discover its source.

Otherwise, "Gothika" is an unsurprising, undistinguished piece of post-summer, pre-holiday detritus, despite the presence of such terrific actors as Penelope Cruz, Robert Downey Jr. and Charles S. Dutton (who, in a triumph for portly bald men everywhere, gets to plant a big wet kiss on Berry early in the proceedings). Although Kassovitz manages to work up a modest degree of psychological suspense, "Gothika" is propelled by too many whoppers to create a believable, and therefore legitimately terrifying, universe: At the last moment, Berry's character will be saved by a preposterously convenient deus ex machina; she will then return to the scene of the crime on a dark night; she will go into the scary barn alone, and she will proceed directly to the even scarier basement. "This isn't logical," her supposedly super-rational doctor keeps saying throughout the movie. Exactly!

Gothika (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, brief profanity and nudity.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company