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Nuts and Volts

Halle Berry's looney-tuned fireworks jinxed by a French ex-auteur's waterlogged ambition

Storm warning: Halle Berry gets soaking wet in Gothika, the victim of deluges that would make her meteorologically gifted X-Men persona proud. In this redundantly dark thriller, the heavy precip serves as dominant mood-setter as well as multipurpose harbinger of all things sinister (and gothik). Indeed, Berry's psychiatrist, Miranda Grey, works in a mental hospital that may be this season's true Haunted Mansion, though by the 30-minute mark, it transforms into a schlock corridor where power relations are inverted and no one is running the asylum. The Sam Fuller references are unearned. Quickly abandoning the psychological for the supernatural, the movie collapses its premise into one painfully derivative pitch: She sees dead people.

Gothika is parody-resistant, though just how much of it is in the De Palmian spirit of good fun remains a point of intrigue. One night, the happily married Dr. Grey careens off the road after nearly hitting a lank-haired tween. Three days later, Grey awakes as a patient in her own hospital, the sole suspect in the butchering of her husband (Charles S. Dutton). Any filmmaker perverse enough to cast Dutton and Berry as man and wife would seem to have something trickier up his sleeve than a paranormal whodunit, and early in his career, French director Mathieu Kassovitz possessed the diabolical potential. Having gone from punk ethnographer (Hate) to Euro hack (The Crimson Rivers), he has com-modified his hyperbolic visual style into a Hollywood vernacular—from nightgowned she-poltergeists to cryptic omens scrawled on walls and flesh. All horror tropes, please report for duty.

As much as Gothika winks at us, it ultimately proves oblivious to its own joke. Berry's holding cell, a minimalist Plexiglas cube, may or may not be a reference to the Prada campaign. Kassovitz does populate his shadows with haute-couture-worthy support, including fellow shrink Robert Downey Jr. (clearly happy to be working again) and witchy inmate Penélope Cruz, whose phonetic delivery feels just right for once. With a title that suggests a heavy metal band, Gothika is fittingly loud, every climax underscored by symphonic tremors. The movie flirts with puncturing its own surreality, but its unsurprising surprise (that the insane are really sane) only confirms screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez's lack of imagination.

Schlock Corridor: Downey, Berry in Gothika
photo: Attila Dory/Warner Bros.
Schlock Corridor: Downey, Berry in Gothika

But nothing frustrates more than the movie's lurid rape obsession, evidently something of a repressed pathology for the filmmakers. Variously pursued, restrained, and mounted, Berry is the embodiment of female victimology. Nightmare or fantasy? Before literalizing it all away in a final-act revelation, Gothika teeters bizarrely between both. As Cruz's similarly rape-fixated sylph intones, in words that eventually register as the director's own wishful thinking: "He opened me like a flower of pain, and it felt good."

 
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