Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz
Gothika is a ghost story/murder mystery set in a penitentiary. With a setup that offers lots of potential for chills and the heebie-jeebies, the film skimps on the scares and winds up a weak cross between The Sixth Sense and an exploitative TV crime drama.
Miranda Grey (Halle Berry, Die Another Day) is a respected psychiatrist at Woodward Penitentiary. Her biggest challenge lies in the psychoanalysis of Chloe Sava (Penèlope Cruz, Vanilla Sky), a rape victim who says Satan attacked her.
Working down the hall is Miranda's husband, Douglas (Charles S. Dutton, A Time to Kill). While they're an unlikely couple, they seem quite happy together and their romantic chemistry follows them from home to office, much to the chagrin of Pete Graham (Robert Downey, Jr., The Singing Detective), a shrink with something of a crush on Mrs. Grey.
No sooner is it established that Miranda is a happily married, well-adjusted, and oh-so-fit young lady than her husband is found dead and she finds herself at the receiving end of the analytical Q&A session. In another unlikely twist, Miranda falls under Pete's charge as he tries to unravel the events leading up to Douglas' murder.
Following paint-by-numbers storytelling, the local sheriff (John Carroll Lynch, Confidence) was the best friend of the good Dr. Douglas Grey and he is quickly convinced Miranda is the guilty party.
And so it is that this assemblage of psychos, shrinks, sheriffs and Satan embark on a sinister murder mystery that manages to be gross, if not engrossing.
The movie tries to link Chloe's troubles to Miranda's predicament and the reported suicide of the warden's daughter. If the movie had the guts to follow what it sets up in the beginning, with religious and mental themes running loose and wild, Gothika could have offered up something different, or at least something different for the Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, this not-fit-for-Halloween-release thriller too often trades in the daring and dangerous for the tried and true.
Some edginess is achieved when Miranda finds herself in the mess hall wearing a patient's gown and surrounded by a horde of tough and off-kilter women. She receives a slight bit of sympathy from Chloe, who matter-of-factly states, "you're one of us now."
Also effective is Downey, who plays his character with just enough quirkiness to keep him under suspicion right up to the end. He certainly has the motive, with his crush on Miranda, and his being in charge of her care offers lots of potential for his twisting the results of her analysis.
Nonetheless, all the spiritual possibilities and the promise of some sort of shocking conclusion are shirked for a resolution disappointingly grounded in the flesh.
Gothika is French director Mathieu Kassovitz's first film in English. He does have style and panache and the screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez (Judas Kiss) affords him the opportunity to play in the rain and with eerie lighting effects, but not much else.
Once it's clear the story is going to put the supernatural on the backburner (aside from the occasional ghost), the film quickly loses steam. While Berry and Downey provide performances that keep the film watchable, there is very little else to praise.
Adding to the disappointment are the production talents of Hollywood mega-moguls Joel Silver (The Matrix) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future). Here they are once again plundering the lame terrain of their previous "horror revival" efforts, a library of schlock that includes Ghost Ship and 13 Ghosts.
Along the way they've managed to attract a lot of talented actors and actresses into their house of horrors. Berry and Downey are at the top of that list and with any luck this turkey won't go on to haunt the rest of their careers.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.