Gothika (Dark Castle, 2003)

 "Logic is overrated." - Miranda Grey

Doctor Miranda Grey is in trouble. One minute, she is a gifted psychiatrist working in a women's penitentiary, driving back to her beautiful home and adoring husband. The next, she is an inmate of the very penitentiary where she was on staff, blamed for the vicious murder of her husband, a crime she doesn't remember committing. All the evidence points to her, and every new revelation seems like further proof. On top of it all, she's seeing things, including the ghost of a colleague's dearly departed daughter. Even her closest ally believes she's crazy. The movie Gothika is her search for the killer.

Or is it? At the beginning of this movie I wasn't sure if Miranda was guilty or innocent, but the murder isn't really the point. To use the term Alfred Hitchcock used for his own films, it's the McGuffin: something that seems important at first, but ultimately has no connection to the matters at hand. Finding out who murdered Douglas Grey is not the climax of the movie, it's just something that leads up to the real story. What the movie ultimately deals with is the ghost of Rachel Parsons and the information she is trying to pass on to Miranda.

Yes, it's been done before, and better. Movies like The Others, The Ring (and its Japanese predecessor, Ringu) and just about everything M. Night Shyamalan has directed have taken the idea of supernatural forces guiding people's lives and produced haunting, lyrical films. Although the song is the same in this film, there is a certain emptiness here.

That's not to say the cast isn't pulling its weight; in fact the actors in this film give extraordinary performances. Then again, what do you expect from a cast like this? As Miranda Grey, Halle Berry evolves from a clinical, uncompromising doctor who refuses to see anything outside of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to a woman who understands that there are things in this world that defy explanation. Miranda is so cool and logical that at the start of the movie I didn't find her character sympathetic in the least. It's the shower scene that begins to reveal the character's vulnerability, leading her to question her way of seeing things. Yes, there is a shower scene. But it's concerned with advancing the plot rather than titillation -- sorry.

Penélope Cruz is amazing as Chloe Sava, a mental patient that seems to be having problems coming to terms with the violent act that landed her in prison. She changes from shockingly inappropriate to lost and wounded in the blink of an eye. Her emotional range was so impressive that I believed every moment. Robert Downey Jr. turns in another fine performance as Pete Graham, Miranda's colleague and psychiatrist. Charles S. Dutton (no relation, unfortunately) plays Miranda's husband Dr. Douglas Grey. His performance is also impressive, but as the murder victim, his scenes are few.

Okay, fine. So they brought together some of my favorite actors for this movie. Understandably, I'm impressed. Don't let my raving lead you to believe that I'm biased. In this film, the performances are the reason to watch. Unfortunately, the script isn't so outstanding.

Sebastian Gutierrez's screenplay is a basic cookie-cutter thriller with supernatural elements added to it, plus a not so unsuspected twist at the end. If the acting and direction had been a bit lacking, this movie would have felt like a cable movie-of-the-week. There is a lot of exposition in this film, but it's there so the audience can play catch-up with the psychiatric jargon. There is so much translation of psych-speak that it felt like I was back in grad school. When it comes to the interactions between characters, however, connections are explained in one or two sentences. In one scene in particular, the audience is left to wonder why a character does what he does for Miranda, because there was no hint of any kind of bond between these two characters past a token affiliation.

Miranda and Douglas' marriage is another point of question. You only see the two characters interact in one brief scene, so I never really invested in their relationship. It's when Gutierrez sticks to the scarier subjects that the scenes become compelling.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz is better known in the United States for his acting roles, most notably as the object of affection in Amélie. This film shows that he has a knack for creating mood, but the pacing in this movie could have been fine-tuned a bit in order to be more suspenseful. But I'm asking the director to clean up a screenplay problem. I couldn't help but think that with what they had to work with, Dark Castle could have produced a better film.

The good news? As a horror movie it works on many levels. There are plenty of scares, and quite a few spooky moments. Makeup, visual and special effects all lend a hand in creating a place where the supernatural can and does touch the world of the living. Class acting, decent effects and competent direction can hide a multitude of sins. Or in this case, the sin of omission. This movie could have been as powerful as The Silence of the Lambs or The Sixth Sense, but without the connection between characters, it falls short of that goal. And the suspense isn't so much "what's going to happen", but "when is it going to happen?"

Hey, just because the McGuffin is here doesn't mean it's Hitchcock. But with creepy special effects and an all-star cast giving it all they've got, it is a nice way to spend a rainy afternoon.

[Denise Dutton]

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