...If the train should jump the track / Do you want your money back? / Yes, no or maybe so?
-- Old children's rhyme
"Gothika" is, somehow, both exactly what I'd expected and a good deal better than that. For a while, it looks like a genuine creepshow sleeper -- a rare horror film that worked its way through the intestines of Hollywood and was crapped out with all its spooky glory still intact. I suppose it gives nothing away to say that the film does, after a prolonged struggle against capitulation, eventually head south; still, the fact that some worth didn't get processed or homogenized out of the final product is slightly encouraging. (We horror nuts have to take what we can get when Hollywood is involved.)
The film opens on some of the worst dialogue you've ever heard being delivered by one of the worst actresses you've ever seen (Penelope Cruz). The subsequent hour of celluloid then came as a fair surprise; as Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) tries to piece together what exactly happened to land her in the asylum and why, the film turns into a sly and atmospheric thriller -- "Shock Corridor" re-envisioned as a haunted-house carnival ride. Apparently, Dark Castle believed in this film enough to spare no expense, which is why the talent involved is of a significantly higher caliber on both sides of the camera. And boy, did it help. The acting is not too bad for a glorified B-movie, which always helps -- Halle Berry in particular does nice work here. In fact, I'd go as far as to say this is the best thing she's done since winning that Oscar. Halle's forte, apparently, is playing women in agitated emotional states. This explains why she's shockingly good here after serving as essentially wallpaper in "Die Another Day" and "X2": she's just not interesting when she plays it straight. She's matched blow for blow by Robert Downey Jr., who even in a "disreputable" film like this pours his all into another one of his fascinatingly quirky performances. (His dialogue pauses are pretty much a character in themselves.) Charles S. Dutton does what he can with his limited screen time, even if his entire performance is meant to function as a red herring of characterization, and Penelope Cruz... um.... okay she sucks. But at least she tries.
The film also looks better than any Dark Castle production to date (small praise, true, but it's praise all the same). Truth be told, the design of this film is fantastic. Importing noted French stylist Mathieu Kassovitz was a plus, as was employing ace DP Matthew Libatique. These guys are pros, and they make sure everything looks properly dark and nightmarish (check that group shower scene). Occasionally, a striking and memorable image will surface (example: the brief scene where we catch a shock-cut glimpse of Cruz being raped by... something). The vibe is so thick with tension, you could punch through it like Jell-O. And just when it looks like this will be a B-level triumph, the third act arrives and lets the air out of everything.
Oh Christ, the direction this film ends up taking... it's so goddamn mundane. Of all the places the movie could have gone, it had to choose this lame dark-heart-of-man crap? I mean, what if the Devil truly had been haunting the asylum? What if Halle really had gone 'round the bend? What if the ghost was simply evil instead of looking for help? And why is it that ghosts can't just come out and say stuff? I mean, this film's not as bad as "Dragonfly" in that respect, but jesus. Just because you're dead doesn't mean everything has to be a cryptogram. Honestly, I had expected this to collapse but I figured it would at least be a spectacular wreck, much like Kassovitz's last film "The Crimson Rivers". That film suffered from being overly ludicrous to the point where you couldn't care how it ended because anything was likely to happen; this one, on the other hand, eventually succumbs to temptation and falls lock-step into cliche. So chalk this one up as a near-miss. It was fun while it lasted, though.