A frightening turn

Times Staff Writer

A horror movie that inspires as many giggles as gasps, "Gothika" is the sort of unwittingly funny rubbish that was once the sole provenance of the likes of William Castle, the B-movie maestro for which the film's production company was named. Halle Berry plays Dr. Miranda Grey, a psychologist who becomes a patient in the mental hospital where she worked. After she's locked up for killing her husband (Charles S. Dutton) and finger-painting their home with his blood, Miranda begins hanging with the undead and putting a suitably feverish topspin on lines such as "I'm not delusional, Pete, I'm possessed!"

Of course, Miranda tries to escape and, of course, there are obstacles to overcome, although not as many as might be expected in an institution for the criminally insane. The director charged with keeping Miranda under wraps is Mathieu Kassovitz, a French filmmaker whose credits include the urban drama "La Haine" (a.k.a. "Hate") and a slick thriller called "The Crimson Rivers." (A sometime actor, Kassovitz is probably more familiar to U.S. audiences as the object of Audrey Tautou's affections in the art-house hit "Amelie.")

As he did with "Crimson Rivers," Kassovitz attempts to counter a deficit of story sense with surface sheen and lots of swirly camera moves. He and cinematographer Matthew Libatique toss the camera around like a pair of speed-freaking cheerleaders, but dreck is dreck no matter how swank the wrapping.

How anyone in the cast manages to keep a straight face is one of the film's innumerable mysteries. Among the wilder and woollier enigmas, without doubt, is the screenplay credited to Sebastian Gutierrez, whose previous features include "The Big Bounce" and "Judas Kiss." Not merely content to hit the usual scary-movie beats -- when a character curses the hospital generator it's only a matter of time before the place goes dark -- Gutierrez has boldly dispensed with any shred of narrative logic. In most films this might be considered a negative, but not in "Gothika," which earned one preview audience's lusty applause the further afield it ventured. After all, you know DVD cult heaven is near when a long, carefully choreographed flight to freedom ends with a guard casually tossing his car keys to a would-be escapee.

Of course the greatest mystery here is why Berry would follow her richly deserved Academy Award-winning performance in "Monster's Ball" -- and even a high-profile stint as a Bond Girl -- in something like "Gothika." The actress has talent to burn, and she throws herself shaking and sobbing, shrieking and screaming into the role with commendable energy and gravitas. Yet no matter how hard Berry chews her lines, and no matter how impressively she wears her cropped then soaking-wet T-shirt while eluding her jailers, she can't salvage the unsalvageable. Neither can the fine supporting cast, whose ranks include wild cards Robert Downey Jr. and Penelope Cruz, the latter having apparently signed the Ethel Mertz/Rhoda clause decreeing that the female costar can never be as attractively photographed as her headlining peer.



MPAA rating: R, for violence, brief language and nudity

Times guidelines: Some bloody gore, an ax murder, partial female nudity

Halle Berry...Dr. Miranda Grey

Robert Downey Jr....Dr. Pete Graham

Charles S. Dutton...Dr. Doug Grey

John Carroll Lynch...Sheriff Ryan

Bernard Hill...Phil Parsons

Penelope Cruz...Chloe Sava

Warner Bros. Pictures and Columbia Pictures present a Dark Castle Entertainment production, released by Warner Bros. Director Mathieu Kassovitz. Writer Sebastian Gutierrez. Producers Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Susan Levin. Music John Ottman. Director of photography Matthew Libatique. Production designer Graham "Grace" Walker. Editor Yannick Kergoat. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

In general release.

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