Worth A Look: 32.63%
Pretty Bad: 23.16%
Total Crap: 16.84%
5 reviews, 65 user ratings
by David Hollands
With many horror gems like Fear dot Com (surprisingly), and Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake appearing lately, it just seems all the more surprising that Gothika would be among them. Now, while not quite the spectacular horror experience of the previously mentioned films, Gothika still manages to shock because it’s a Dark Castle production that doesn’t suck.For the uninitiated, Dark Castle productions had originally updated two William Castle schlock classics, House on Haunted Hill and Th13teen Ghosts, both extremely asinine productions with poor, MTV-style direction that annoyed rather than frightened, and actors you wanted to punch in the face. And let's not even get started on Ghost Ship. However, Gothika marks a new direction for Dark Castle, a film that definitely doesn’t suck, and one that actually frightens. Plus, it actually features a for-once good performance from Halle Berry.
"A fine horror film."
Our little spook ride begins when Dr. Miranda Grey encounters a little trouble while taking a detour to her house. She almost hits a girl, and gets a real surprise upon checking to see if she’s okay, when the girl grabs her face and bursts into flames. Flash-forward three days, when poor Miranda wakes up in a mental institution, the same institution in which she works. She must face every patient she’s cared for and dismissed as simply insane, and she must also deal with some odd occurrences, including nightly visits from the girl she almost hit.
Sebastian Gutierrez’s screenplay is a formidable piece of work. Until its horrible conclusion, this flick just sparkles with drive and life, never slowing down what-so-ever. Gutierrez is obviously aware of the trend in the horror movies of today to have slow dialogue scenes rather than good atmosphere and first-rate scares.
Gutierrez turns this on its head here, crafting a film that has dialogue scenes that are smartly written, appearing as if they are taking place in reality, and yet still larger than life in that classic horror film fashion. He achieves this by using dialogue that neither goes too over the top nor goes too far under to make the audience totally feel as if this is taking place in the real world. That’s fantastic, as Gutierrez is able to involve his audience on a purely enjoyable level, and still scare them silly by hinting that this could actually be happening in reality.
In fact, one thing that really stands out here, is how effectively Gutierrez reveals information to the audience. Gore Verbinski’s horrible The Ring revealed information by having the characters speak to themselves awkwardly in poorly timed moments in which they would ask a question to themselves, and then a swell of music would indicate that they’d found the answer. The technique fell on its rear end many times over, and that never happens in Gothika. Gutierrez reveals information by having the characters either speak to the spirit, or speak to other characters about their discoveries. Surprisingly, the characters hardly ever speak to themselves.
Thank goodness Gutierrez doesn't take the M. Night Shyamalan route in the way he reveals the twists. Shyamalan, upon the reveal of the twist, flashed back to certain points in the film as if he figured the audience was too stupid to have already realised it. Just like Cronenberg’s mesmerizing Spider, Gutierrez simply allows the action to flow, and trusts his audience to figure certain things out for themselves. This is perhaps one of those special horror pictures that asks you to pay attention to many of the small details, even if the plot isn’t that hard to follow. I was really surprised when certain things came up in the plot, and I was amazed at how Gutierrez was able to set-up said events so subtly. Like, for example, inserting small dialogue exchanges into a scene that would repeat themselves in the conclusion, dialogue exchanges originally appearing so small that they would only register subconciously. However, when one watches the film again, the subtleties come through more clearly, and yet they still never seem to be hitting the audience over the head.
There are only a few film scripts that are completely perfect, and Gothika isn’t one of them. The film has a twist ending here, and the set-up just doesn’t support it very well. It’s not so much that the twist negates much of the action of the rest of the film disrespectfully, it’s just that it renders the actions of one of the most important characters completely idiotic. The ghost in this film does certain things to brutally harm our heroine, and yet when one sees the film with the ending in place, one just can’t figure out exactly why the ghost was doing this. Why is it that the ghost not only hardly helps her out of her predicament when it’s revealed during the conclusion that she easily could, but also feels it needs to bash poor Miranda virtually senseless in one moment, cut her arm to shreds in another, and cause her car to almost crash right into a tree? I realise the film had to be scary and create some kind of tension, but when a spirit is dumb enough to try and scare the one who’s supposed to be helping it into a comatose state, something is definitely wrong in the scripting department.
Many scary things happen in this flick, and the usual thing in horror movies is to have the characters make extremely stupid decisions to make those scares possible. That never happens at all in Gothika. Instead, Gutierrez has the scary things come to Miranda when she’s either in a certain place against her will, or while doing something for her own safety. This happens many times, most impressively during a moment in which the only place poor Miranda can hide from Asylum Security Guards is in a darkly lit swimming pool. The scene is tension-filled, because we know that we’d have to do the exact same thing, as there was really no other place for Miranda to go to hide from the guards.Gutierrez perfectly sets up the fear in the audience that the ghost can appear anywhere. And he takes advantage of that many times, by having the spirit show up behind people, walking down hallways, and in car mirrors.
The characters in this film are not simply the stock characters that one would expect to find in a film like this. Gutierrez gives each character their own moment to shine. Miranda’s life is perfectly established at the beginning of the film, with many scenes showing how well off she is and how happily she’s enjoying life. None of this is overly melodramatic, and we can in fact feel the romantic tensions between Miranda and the husband that she will soon loose, in a way that when the husband is revealed to have been killed, we can feel Miranda’s sadness and loneliness. Plus, having a main character who’s smart and sympathetic is always a plus, so that when the script puts her in danger, we can literally feel that danger oozing through our veins.
The other characters around Miranda all have interesting little quirks that never seem overtly piled on to provide obvious red herrings. The quirks just seem real, such as a scene in an interesting little bit in which fellow psychiatrist Pete Graham confesses that he wanted to have an affair with Miranda, a little something that adds a certain dimension to any scene involving the two. While it doesn’t necessarily bear on the film that much (as this subplot wasn’t pushed any further than one exchange), it still seems necessary to make us connect to the main characters on an emotional level, something that is never really found in a horror movie.
Taking over the direction from usual Dark Castle MTV-heads William Malone and Steve Beck is Mathieu Kassovitz, a director who from the very first frame of film, demonstrates that he knows exactly what he is doing. Kassovitz shoves a huge number of frightening visuals into our faces, a fact that makes this movie feel special. Kassovitz constantly employs extreme dark visuals, and also includes a few wonderfully positioned CGI touches in which the camera bleeds through walls and glass. These CGI touches are especially brilliant in that Kassovitz uses just enough to tell the audience that they’re watching a purely fun, cinematic horror movie, and yet never too much so those moments become weightless. This way, the audience just becomes immersed in the film, and the atmosphere simply flows right into them, as if the film itself is possessing us and manipulating our every move. We are allowed to revel in the joy of watching a dark horror film without losing any amount of tension.
The film's pace is fantastic. The movie's about two hours, and yet it breezes by in no time. In fact, Miranda wakes up in the mental ward about ten minutes into the film, and Kassovitz has somehow been able to set up the entire character, and what she has to lose in that time without making the film appear rushed. It’s a true testament to his talent. Also spectacular is the staging of the scary sequences. Kassovitz uses shots that are extremely menacing. Such wonderful shots include Miranda sitting alone to the left of her cell illuminated only by light from the main hall before it goes out, or when the ghost is shown walking around a corner in a freakishly distorted fashion. Also spectacular is how Kassovitz presents his jump scares. Kassovitz surprises us so many times throughout that we practically cover our ears for the entire film, fearing the worst. Such clever moments include Miranda bending down towards a doorway, revealing the ghost directly behind her, or Miranda staring in her rear view mirror, and seeing the ghost reflected there.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has never really been a favourite of mine. I find that his photography has always never really suited the film, such as his beautiful, yet overbearing work on Phone Booth, or his unpleasantly over the top dreck for Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. Here though, he’s really able to shine, as this film perfectly suits his style. The images are wonderful here. He uses lighting and shadows so effectively, that the audience will constantly be on the edge of their seats, looking into the darkness, desperate to see anything they can. Then Libatique fools us by having the dark areas suddenly light up when the ghost appears inside, having cleverly tricked the audience in watching those spaces. Plus, unlike many horror movies, there’s only one scene in which it’s raining. Aside from that one scene, Libatique relies on gothic images to create atmosphere, not overbearing rain sound effects (like the ones that proved especially grating in the failed Identity).
When I saw in the credits that John Ottman was the composer here, I was quite surprised. For one thing, the only other thing I’d known Ottman for was his extremely sub-par work on Halloween H2O: Twenty Years Later. The other was that this is perhaps one of the greatest scores for a horror picture that I’ve ever heard. I’ve always expected music in horror pictures to be dark and scary, yet I’ve never expected them to be dark, scary and beautiful at the same time. During many sequences, Ottman scores the scenes with such a wonderful poetic touch. Unlike his bombastic and annoying compositions in H2O, Ottman appears to have finally realised that less is definitely more. Although there are the typical horror movie musical builds, they are just far more restrained than anything else he’s done. There are also moments that are made extremely suspenseful based solely on Ottman’s knowledge as to when to let a scene simply play silently. Many times here, the music builds to make the audience feel comfortable that there is still some noise in the background. Then, he yanks the rug out from under us by winding down going for silence. That approach alone makes for fantastic scenes in which are hearts are beating so much that we practically go into cardiac arrest by the time the jump scare pops up.
The performances are equally wonderful. Halle Berry, usually an extreme detriment to any film in which she appears, pulls herself out of her own hat and delivers a great performance. She actually has more than one facial expression here. Robert Downey Jr. makes the most of his limited role as Pete Graham. His quirky mannerisms just make this character work, in a way that makes us constantly wonder if he’s really all that he appears to be. A scene in which he confesses to Miranda that he wanted to have an affair with her is full of beautiful emotional chemistry. Penelope Cruz gives one of her best performances here. Her slightly odd yet beautiful face perfectly lends itself to her role as the psychotic asylum patient Chloe. Plus, her gravely voice here makes for wonderfully creepy dialogue exchanges. The supporting players are all giving it their best here too, and in a most surprising situation for a horror picture, there isn’t a single dead weight performance. Finally, Kathleen Mackey does an excellent job as the ghost. She takes a relatively simple role and runs with it brilliantly.
The other flaw here that keeps this from being a total five-star classic is the awful conclusion. I’ve already mentioned the ghost’s actions flaw, yet there’s another drastically poor plot twist that occurs at the conclusion. The set-up is terrible, and the pay-off can be predicted five-hundred miles away. The screenplay basically has the guilty one come to Miranda and act so obviously that we just find ourselves wanting to bash the heroine over the coals to knock some sense into her. It’s disappointing that a movie this creepy could have a conclusion this disappointing.Despite it’s flaws, I’m willing to give Gothika a strong four-stars. Sure, it goes awry in its final fifteen minutes, but the moments leading up to those are excellent. Usually in these horror movies, the whole film is terrible, so anyone should be willing to overlook the errors in Gothika.
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originally posted: 12/16/03 10:52:53
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