Scary for all the wrong reasons

Ghosts (supernatural entities)Halle BerryCrime, Law and JusticePenelope CruzCrimeRobert Downey Jr.Bernard Hill

Gothika is a ghost-story movie. This is a slightly different film genre than full-out horror movies, but the purpose is more or less the same: long stretches of creepy music and incredibly stupid decision-making, leading up to a heart-pounding, shock-inducing GOTCHA!, followed by a nervous laugh, then lather, rinse and repeat till the credits roll.

As a ghost-story movie, I can report the following: Gothika has five jump-in-your-seat moments. It has six good laughs (five of which are unintentional). It has a very predictable plot, particularly if you've seen The Ring. And finally, the biggest mystery in this film is simply this: how did this vehicle for teenage nobodies get such a star-studded cast?

I mean, Halle Berry won a freakin' Oscar, Robert Downey Jr. isn't hurting for jobs, Penelope Cruz's career is on fire, Bernard Hill had a major role in Lord of the Rings fer gosh sakes, and Charles Dutton and John Carroll Lynch already have TV day jobs -- what gives? Did they anger their agents? Was this film Satan's reward for helping them with their careers all these years? Were they forced at gunpoint? Or did they just feel that maybe all that excellent film work they've done recently needed some balance?

Try as I might, this film offers little in the way of satisfaction, even if you buy into the plot. For starters, why is it called Gothika? It's not the name of the institution involved, and nobody ever mentions the word. You've probably heard the basic set-up: Halle Berry works as a prison psychiatrist, notably treating French Goth chick Penelope Cruz for chronic scene-stealing. One dark and stormy night (yes really!), the power goes off in her office as she's working late, so naturally she decides to go for a swim in the institution's pool.

She then drives home, only she runs into a ghost -- or not -- and wakes up the next day as a prisoner in the same facility, charged with murdering her husband (who ran the facility and was very popular). And everyone thinks she's crazy. Oh sure, that happens.

I forgot to mention -- the lights flicker whenever something creepy is about to happen. No, I'm not kidding. Oh, and the moral of the story? Nice people are actually psychos, and psychos are actually nice people. Great.

If your date is not a veteran of these sorts of movies, the shocking moments will drive him or her straight into your arms, and you'll know if they're screamers -- which can be real handy to know. But you'll be groaning and rolling your eyes by the end, and that's not due to being possessed.

This film might have rated two stars if Halle Berry had gotten naked (actually, she does -- several times -- but don't get your hopes up), but in the end this movie is our Thanksgiving turkey. Gothika is the result of a lot of called-in favors and lost bets, and the writer and director (Sebastian Gutierrez and Mathieu Kassovitz, respectively) should be punished by being sentenced to an institution -- an institution called film school.

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