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Halle Berry Unlocking
the ghost
Halle Berry stars in a film that throws logic out the door
while taking the audience on a thrills and chills ride


"Gothika"

Reviewed by Carlos deVillalvilla

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After an Oscar-winning tour-de-force in "Monster's Ball" and a well-received role as Jinx in "Die Another Day," what Halle Berry needed to do was to show that she can open a film, in Hollywood parlance, to move up into upper echelon of stardom.

On the surface, "Gothika" would seem to be a strange choice for Berry's declaration of superstardom. After all, it comes from Dark Castle Productions, which have for the most part been serving up remakes of William Castle-produced B-movie horror classics, only with better budgets and modern eye-popping effects (see "House on Haunted Hill," "Th13teen Ghosts").

This one is a bit different. For one thing, it is a completely original story.

At first glance, Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) seems to have a pretty nice life. A respected psychologist at a gothic woman's prison in New England, she's married to the warden (Charles Dutton), himself a psychologist of some repute. There are hiccups, of course. One of her patients, Chloe (Penelope Cruz) seems to be imagining phantom rapes that she claims were perpetrated by the devil. When Miranda seeks a more rational explanation, Chloe exclaims "You can't trust someone who thinks you're crazy." But the ever-rational Dr. Grey, who believes in logic above all, finds that Chloe's rantings are the cries of a woman attempting to displace her guilt at having murdered her abusive husband.

That dark and stormy night Dr. Grey is forced to take a detour home when her normal route is washed out by the rain. She has to pass over a lonely bridge, when she nearly runs into a girl (Bronwen Mantel) standing in the middle of the road, causing her car to skid into a ditch. When Dr. Grey goes to see if the girl is all right, she finds the girl is badly gashed. That's the last thing she remembers.

Three days later, Dr. Grey wakes up -- to discover she is now a patient in the penitentiary at which she formerly worked. When she demands to see her husband, her former co-worker, Dr. Graham (Robert Downey Jr.), informs her that her husband isn't in -- and that Dr. Grey herself had punched his ticket for the choir invisible.

When Dr. Grey loses it, she is sedated.

Over the next few days, she tries to piece together what happened, through therapy sessions, interviews with the sheriff (John Carroll Lynch) who also happened to be her late husband's best friend, and her own fragmented memory. When Dr. Grey sees the girl she nearly ran into that fateful night in the prison shower, she becomes upset.

Dr. Grey discovers that the girl is actually the daughter of a hospital administrator (Bernard Hill) and there is a bit of a problem; the girl had committed suicide years before. Dr. Grey, being the logical, stable person she is, doesn't believe in ghosts.

The problem is that ghosts apparently believe in Dr. Grey, and they begin to have several violent encounters with her, escalating with each incident, and always prefaced by flickering electric lights which go largely unnoticed in a prison that has had electrical problems for years.

It becomes obvious that there is more to the murder of her husband than Dr. Grey was led to believe, and that something or someone is willing to kill the good psychologist to silence her about what she knows. The only way to survive and find the truth about her husband's murder is to escape from the maximum security prison, and only then will Dr. Grey confront what really happened to her husband -- and find out that her life will change forever.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz sets up a wonderfully spooky atmosphere, which is absolutely essential for a ghost story. Unfortunately, Sebastian Guttierez's script has a few leaps in logic which -- when you consider his main character is supposed to be defined by her devotion to logic -- derails the movie at times. For example, during the escape from the prison, Dr. Grey is allowed to leave by a friendly guard who even gives her his car to use. Why would he trust her when the evidence points to her as an axe-murderer?

There is another, even more glaring hole, but I can't discuss it here without giving away a vital plot point.

But Berry does an excellent jobe. She has to play a strong, self-confident woman whose whole world is shattered. Dr. Grey is not the perfect hero; she loses it from time to time, which makes her more realistic. She has to re-evaluate her view of the world as it becomes more and more evident that there is a supernatural element in the events transpiring. She shows self-pity from time to time, but her inner strength carries her through.

With an Oscar victory in hand, a potential franchise-spawning role as Jinx in the James Bond movies and an important role in the X-Men franchise, Berry is a formidable presence in Hollywood.

In "Gothika," she more than proves that she is capable of carrying a movie herself.

Kassovitz, who has directed "Crimson Rivers" (one of the best horror movies of recent years) and "Amalie," a delightfully charming fantasy, is a first-rate talent. Although the flickering electricity can sometimes be a bit heavy-handed, he prefers to build the horror through atmosphere, suspense and mis-direction. There are some horrific moments of gore, but the gore isn't so over-the-top that it defines for the movie. With this impressive cast (Downey and Cruz are wonderful), he does a fine job in his first English-language movie. I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more from him.

"Gothika" is one of those movies you don't want to see in a dark room without someone to clutch. There are a few genuine shocks, but nothing that will put a pacemaker into overdrive. It derives its success from excellent acting, fine directing and a compelling story advanced by characters who rarely stoop to cliche. If 2003 is remembered as the year visceral horror made a comeback, "Gothika" will be surely noted as one of the films that fueled the trend.

AT HOME OR AT A THEATER?

Although you may not want to see this alone in the dark, it's an excellent stormy night home video choice.


See cast, credit and other details about "Gothika" at Internet Movie Data Base.