Gothika a nice surprise in theaters

The next time you meet a schizophrenic individual, pause to consider that he or she might be persecuted by vengeful ghosts. Halle Berry’s first stab at commanding a horror movie, the highly atmospheric “Gothika” (Warner Bros.) probably won’t change the way you perceive the supernatural thriller, but it might upset your deeply rooted beliefs about so-called “crazy” people. Since you probably don’t go to the movies to challenge your views of abnormal psychology, rest assured that it will also provide substantial heebie-jeebies. I had to cover myself thoroughly with blankets the following evening so the evil-faced girl wouldn’t be able to stab me in the night. Now that I have embarrassed myself, let’s move on.

“Gothika” stars the ever-lovely Berry as Dr. Miranda Grey, criminal psychologist to the unbalanced patients at a women’s therapeutic correction facility that, naturally, looks exactly like a Gothic castle. Dr. Grey is a paragon of logic and rational thinking until she wakes up a patient in her own hospital, imprisoned for committing a brutal murder of which she has no memory. Dr. Grey must fight her way back to the sane side of the spectrum; in doing so, she learns she is the victim of a ghost seeking justice, with Robert Downey Jr. as her disbelieving former-colleague-turned-doctor and the creepy Penelope Cruz as her former-patient-turned-ally. At this point, the film begins to weaken, becoming an increasingly routine whodunit rather than the jarring, fresh story it could have been. The more matters are explained, the less effective director Mathieu Kassovitz’s unsettlingly dark visuals and disturbing symbolism become. Despite this, however, “Gothika” still works, largely due to Berry’s intrepid, precipice-leaping performance.

There is no shortage of Jack-in-the-Box moments accompanied by creepy string music – these shouldn’t surprise us any more, but they inevitably do. Finally, there is the aforementioned evil-faced girl. Taking its cue from the success of “The Ring,” “Gothika” makes extensive use of a drowned female figure appearing from nowhere, walking about stiltedly and attacking the heroine with a snarl that still makes me shudder. If you don’t overanticipate “Gothika,” you will have a fun, old-fashioned ride at the movies. You might not be leaping from your seat in terror, but you definitely won’t want to leave it.

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