THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Gothika is interesting in that it reminded me of several other movies, yet it somehow managed to distinguish itself anyway. You could practically have an entire section of a video store dedicated to films about dead women or girls who attempt to get revenge from beyond the grave. This is always done through some form of communication with the living. The Ring used this formula brilliantly; What Lies Beneath used it poorly. Gothika is somewhere in between. It’s not the best example, but it’s sturdy and well-made.

Halle Berry plays Dr. Miranda Gray, a psychiatrist in a mental institution for criminally insane women. Her most challenging patient is Chloe (Penelope Cruz), who claims to see ghostly images. Miranda is married to the program’s director, Doug (Charles S. Dutton), and she gently rebuffs the flirtations of a coworker, Pete Graham (Robert Downey, Jr.). One stormy night, Miranda leaves the institution and drives home. A large sink hole in the road forces her to take a detour. Right after she goes through an old covered bridge, she nearly hits a teenage girl standing motionless in the middle of the road. Miranda gets out to see if the girl is all right.

The next thing Miranda knows, she is waking up in the institution. This time, however, she’s on the other side of the gate. Graham comes in to evaluate her, claiming that she is locked up for brutally murdering her husband. Miranda remembers none of this. She has a gap in her memory that begins the second she approached that mysterious girl. No one believes her innocence, and Miranda thinks perhaps she is going crazy. Then she starts receiving a strange message – “not alone”. The message shows up several places, including written in steam on the glass wall of her cell. Eventually, it becomes clear that the girl in the road was a spirit who is now trying to convey something to Miranda. She must find out what “not alone” means and determine whether the girl somehow inhabited her body during the blackout.

There’s an explanation for all of this, and boy, is it a doozy. In the realm of wild, over-the-top movie concepts, this one ranks right up there. And, in fact, the ending is the weakest part of Gothika. If you’ve seen What Lies Beneath or The Ring, you can probably guess the dead girl’s motivation. The other part – the reason behind her motivation – is more surprising. I’m not sure the film really develops a key character enough for the revelation to be totally believable, so this plot twist doesn’t quite work.

For me, though, Gothika is not so much about the destination as it is about the journey. In other words, the ending isn’t so hot, but everything leading up to it is pretty enjoyable. I love the atmosphere director Mathieu Kassovitz (The Crimson Rivers) gives the film. He’s not afraid to create a slight sense of non-realism in order to establish a creepy mood. This is really apparent in the way the insititution is presented. It’s full of flickering lights, dark shadows, and giant cells with big glass doors. Realistic? No. Effective? Yes. If you can suspend your disbelief, the visual style of Gothika is definitely creepy.

It also helps that Halle Berry is cast in the central role. She’s a very good actress, and the sincerity she brings to the part aids the movie in gliding over some of the more hard-to-swallow moments. It would have been easy to cast a lesser actress (one who comes without an Oscar and a high price tag), but the producers were smart to hire Berry. She brings more depth to Miranda than you might expect in this genre of film. Robert Downey, Jr. was a good idea, too. Again, he’s a solid actor who really brings something to the table. Penelope Cruz’s role is somewhat inconsequential, but casting her was an interesting choice, so I appreciate that.

The worst examples of these “dead girl” movies make the mistake of telegraphing important plot points too far in advance. I remember the way Harrison Ford in What Lies Beneath made such a big point about how the cell phone didn’t get a signal until you went across the bridge. At that moment, I knew that his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) would at some point go racing across that bridge in order to call for help. This obvious set-up/payoff structure kills suspense because the audience is now a lot further ahead than the characters onscreen are. Gothika deftly avoids this error. We follow Miranda on her journey, knowing only what she knows, learning only what she learns. This approach helped draw me into the story more; I spent more time getting involved in her character and less time just sitting there waiting for the inevitable.

It bears repeating that Gothika stumbles in its finale. It becomes more overwrought and less atmospheric. It also contains one of the worst, most laughably bad special effects shots I’ve seen in modern filmmaking. I liked everything else about it, though. This is not the best horror movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s made with style and skill. I can easily imagine a picture such as this being horrible. The fact that it is so entertaining is a pleasant surprise. Many of the scenes (including a spooky shower encounter with the dead girl) are appropriately horrific, and the tone is unsettling throughout. Then there’s the last shot of the film: it doesn’t exactly set Gothika up for a sequel, but it offers an idea intriguing enough to kind of make me want one.

( out of four)

Gothika is rated R for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, some violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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