2 stars


12th September 2004

Halle Berry needs a new agent. For every Monster's Ball, there's a B.A.P.S and for every Bulworth, there's a Swordfish - although undoubtedly a fine actress and worthy of that Oscar, she's proving to be frustratingly inconsistent in choosing her roles. The latest blip on the Berry CV is the psycho-thriller Gothika, the premise of which sees promising young psychiatrist Miranda Grey involved in a car crash with a phantom pedestrian before waking up, confused and bedraggled in the very asylum in which she's toiled for years. Apparently guilty of her husband's murder, Grey has to convince her colleagues and herself that she's not crazy.

Gothika's main problem is that it doesn't know what it wants to be. The casting of Berry and fellow doctor Robert Downey Jr. would suggest that an intense psychological chiller was originally on the cards, but the constant bombardment of horror clich's and stilted dialogue would suggest that somewhere down the line, La Haine director Mathieu Kassovitz was forced to make Gothika slightly more accessible to a generation brought up on sub-par slasher flicks. Therefore we have a mental asylum which, thanks to a faulty generator, has constantly flickering lights (sure to set its patients at ease) and a series of predictable 'shock horror' moments that are often telegraphed minutes in advance, giving you ample time to brace yourself.

When it comes to shocks, Gothika shies away from building any real tension and goes for the easy thrill each and every time. It's not big, clever or difficult to make someone jump by surprising them with sudden loud noises or flashing lights (try standing behind a stranger in the street and screaming at the top of your voice, see how similar the results are) and although it often provides genuinely disturbing visual imagery, Gothika just doesn't have the balls to be different enough. Compare it to The Sixth Sense on factors like atmosphere and intensity, and it pales in comparison on both counts.

Despite working with a below-par script (featuring some truly woeful one-liners: "I don't believe in ghosts, but they believe in me!"), Halle Berry is by far the closest thing Gothika has to a redeeming feature. No one can quite play the emotionally raped female like Berry can, and she treads the fine line between sanity and true Adam Ant-style lunacy adeptly. It's difficult to see which other actresses in Hollywood at the moment could handle a role like Miranda Grey so effortlessly - Berry has further proved her credentials as a serious character actress, even if it isn't in the most ideal surroundings. Interestingly, in one sequence where a terrified Grey bumps into a ghostly apparition of herself, the murderous glint in her eye provides Gothika's most genuine chill.

It's a shame the same cannot be said of Gothika's supporting players, as diverse a bunch as they are. The seemingly cinema-shy Penelope Cruz disappoints as a tortured fellow inmate (she's far too pretty to be a loon) and Robert Downey Jr. turns out to be more of a distraction than anything else, although in both cases it's again down to a flawed screenplay with a ragged script. A special mention must also go to the security staff of the mental asylum - these are guards so inept, even Dr. Evil would toss their job applications straight in the bin. Not only do they consistently ignore the facility's security cameras, they fail to capture escaped prisoners on more than one occasion and in one ridiculous set-piece, find it impossible to locate an inmate in the one place in the room they could be hiding. You really can't get the staff these days, but the blame ultimately lies with a daft storyline that's riddled with plot holes and unforgivable inconsistencies.

Perhaps the one thing which could have saved Gothika from a stinkingly average reception was a decent, Sixth Sense-like shock-a-thon ending, but alas, this ultimately proved too much of a stretch as well. In fact, given that for the first 98% of the movie you're literally drenched with over-the-top effects and a downcast atmosphere, the bathetic final two minutes are not only an insult to what's gone before but churn up even more questions, which Gothika never quite gets around to answering. When the final credits roll and the Limp Bizkit closer kicks in, it's a perfectly fitting song - like Durst's terrible rendition of The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes", Gothika is cheap, shallow and ultimately rings hollow with no understanding of its medium at all. Fire that agent, girlfriend.

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