As far as shivery ghost stories and twist-driven murder-mysteries go, "Gothika" is a classy, dread-filled production populated with an above-average cast and plenty of namesake atmospherics. While some of the plot turns are more predictable than others, the film is well-developed and tautly paced, drenching the viewer in a pool of foreboding palpability. One thing is for sure: it is easily the best feature to date from Robert Zemeckis and Joel Silvers' specialty unit, Dark Castle Entertainment (following 1999's "House on Haunted Hill
," 2001's "Thirteen Ghosts
," and 2002's "Ghost Ship
Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) is a knowledgeable psychiatrist at a Connecticut mental institution who, nonetheless, is having a hard time getting through to disturbed current patient Chloe (Penelope), who claims to have been raped by the Devil. "You have to trust me," pleads Miranda. "How can I trust you," replies Chloe, "when you think I'm crazy?" On her way home in a violent rainstorm one night, Miranda gets into a car accident after dodging a beaten teenage girl (Kathleen Mackey) in the middle of the road. The next thing she knows, she has woken up a patient in her own place of employment, accused with the brutal murder of her husband, hospital director Douglas (Charles S. Dutton). With all of the evidence sure-footedly pointing toward her but with no recollection of having committed the crime, Miranda must take it upon herself to find out what happened. Meanwhile, she is stalked by ghostly apparitions of the girl from the road, whom Miranda knows has some sort of connection with her.
Moodily directed with care and style by Mathieu Kassovitz, "Gothika" is an unusually smart horror film that takes its time setting things up and raising the stakes, putting the viewer squarely alongside the confused, distressed, and frightened Miranda. Recalling different elements from 1999's "In Dreams
," 1999's "The Sixth Sense
," 2000's "What Lies Beneath
," and 2002's "The Ring
," screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez puts enough of his own spin on the material to make it feel fresh. And perhaps most welcome of all, obligatory "boo!" scares are kept at a minimum, trusting the dark psychological aspects of the story to produce the bulk of the suspense and a sense of unease.
In her first solely headlining role, Halle Berry (2001's "Monster's Ball
") is superb as the put-upon Miranda Grey, putting her already proven lofty acting range to good use. Berry refuses to be just another cliched horror movie heroine and, along with the assured writing, injects her character with three dimensions and a veritable sympathetic edge. As Chloe, whom Miranda befriends and begins to understand only after she is placed with her in the asylum, Penelope Cruz (2001's "Vanilla Sky
") turns in a focused and touching, decidedly unglamorous supporting performance. Also making an impression in a superlative cast, Robert Downey Jr. (2000's "Wonder Boys
") plays coworker Dr. Pete Graham, who becomes Miranda's psychiatrist, and Bernard Hill (2002's "The Scorpion King
") is fellow hospital worker Phil Parsons, who may or may not have ties with the central mystery.
Putting the gothic in "Gothika" is the sumptuous, ultra-creepy production design by Graham "Grace" Walker (2002's "Queen of the Damned
"), painting the gray, gloomy, sterilized mental institution as a character in and of itself. The stylish, swirling camerawork by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (2002's "Abandon
") is equally inspired, none more so than in a flashback that constructs itself backwards and another scene that uses the camera to magnificent effect as the point of view of the ghost.
One of the most intriguing ideas "Gothika" has to offer is the notion that, for all of their expertise in the psychology of the mind, the psychiatrists don't know the first thing about connecting with their patients. In order to understand them, you have to be put in their place, as Miranda comes to learn all too well. Save for an unnecessary, nonsensical final scene that suggests post-production reshoots ("Ghost Ship
" fell victim to the same thing, though on a more calamitous scale), the film keeps its tension and expertly woven story trucking from start to finish. For thrills and chills that do not rely on gory slasher theatrics, "Gothika" is one of the stronger horror entries of the year.