Dr Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) is a psychiatrist working in a women's prison. Tonight she is talking to one of her patients, Chloe (Penélope Cruz), who is embellishing her story of rape at the hands of her stepfather; Miranda thinks the patients are being too heavily medicated, and tells her husband (Charles S. Dutton), also a psychiatrist at the institution. He heads home, and Miranda takes a swim in the prison pool before driving off to join him, but the storms have closed the road she usually takes, so she opts for a different route, one which takes her across the bridge - and into a nightmare that she can't wake up from.
Written by Sebastian Gutierrez, this glossy horror was one of the series of chillers brought to you from Dark Castle productions, and like the others, takes place in an enclosed space for its scares, such as they are. The action in House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts was in lavishly designed houses and in Ghost Ship a seafaring vessel was employed, so this time our haunted house substitute is the prison building, which, as the title suggests, looks gothic from the outside, but ironically sterile and modern inside. Here the ghost is that of a teenage girl, who appears to Miranda as she drives over the bridge, causing her to swerve to avoid a collision and end up in a ditch. She confronts the figure, but then everything goes blank...
It's that old story, the "they won't believe me!" one, where Miranda wakes up in one of the prison cells with no memory of what has happened during the past few hours. Now an inmate, she is informed by her erstwhile colleague Pete Graham (Robert Downey Jr in his accustomed smart guy role) that her husband has been murdered with an axe, and that she is the prime suspect in the case. Naturally, she can't convince anyone that she's innocent, and even we're not so sure, because without full possession of the facts, it's difficult to tell. What we do know is that she is still being haunted by the mysterious teenage girl, and she is making her presence felt.
Gothika's main strength is keeping the viewer guessing, and leaving us as much in the dark as the main character is. It piles spooky incident on creepy occurence: Miranda sees the phrase "Not Alone" not only written in an unseen person's breath on the clear door of her cell, but has the words carved in her arm when in the shower (it wouldn't be a women in prison film worth its salt without a shower scene, I suppose). Chloe (Cruz bravely looking dowdy) adds to the tension by letting on she knows more about the supernatural stuff than she wants to let on, and we have flashbacks to the murder, making us wonder how much Miranda really remembers.
This is all very well, but there's only so much strangeness they can pack in before it begins to test the patience, and when the explanation comes, it strains credibility more than the ghostly visions. The film looks slick, but the photography is too gleaming when it should be murky and grimy, although they do turn down the lights to create a moody gloom for most of the time. Berry gets little to do other than act scared or confused (or scared and confused - simultaneously), and Miranda is only defined by the events around her, she's pretty blank otherwise. While the mystery intrigues as far as it goes, it's difficult to believe the supposedly intelligent Miranda wouldn't have worked out there was something wrong without going through the whole haunted prison routine, but as a somewhat mechanical exercise in atmosphere, Gothika is adequate without pushing back any genre boundaries. I didn't know paranormal explanations were admissable in court, did you? Music by John Ottman.
French writer, director and actor. As writer and director, he made his biggest impact with electrifying urban drama La Haine. Assassin(s) followed, a longer version of one of his short films, then he moved into the thriller/horror genre with The Crimson Rivers and Gothika, sci-fi with the doomed Babylon A.D and real life drama in Rebellion. As an actor, he's best known for being the "hero" in A Self-Made Hero and as the heroine's romantic interest in Amelie.