Dir: Mathieu Kassovitz. US. 2003. 99 mins.
Featuring Halle Berry in her first solo-starring role, this latest offering from Joel Silver's mid-budget Dark Castle label is a creepy if rather one-note chiller blending the old-fashioned scare tactics suggested by its title with elements from the new wave of Asian horror. Warner releases in the US this week and should, by tapping the increasingly significant female-led horror audience, be able to do at least as well as it did with Dark Castle's previous modest successes (Ghost Ship, 13 Ghosts and The House On Haunted Hill, which averaged $38m domestically). Sony rolls out the film internationally in the New Year and while it will probably have to work harder to reach an audience the name of director Mathieu Kassovitz, who makes his US debut with Gothika three years after the success of his French thriller The Crimson Rivers, should help in some markets.
The Gothic horror influence (the title doesn't seem to have any direct relevance to the story) is most evident in the setting, an isolated women's penitentiary whose rococo exterior, dingy halls and grotesque clientele could have come right out of the 19th century. Berry's Dr Miranda Grey is the star psychologist in the facility's psychiatric ward and she's happily married to the ward's chief administrator (Dutton, from Cookie's Fortune). After an intense session with a disturbed patient (Cruz) and a frightening encounter with a strange girl on the drive home from work, Miranda wakes up three days later confined in her own ward and accused of her husband's grisly murder. When the girl - the ghost of a colleague's dead daughter - reappears, she frees Miranda and begins to lead her to the truth behind the brutal killing.
Berry might not be entirely believable as a criminal psychologist but she does manage to give her role some dimension. And the script, by Judas Kiss writer Sebastian Gutierrez, attempts to add character interest by having Miranda's colleague and secret admirer (Downey Jr) treating her. But what the film really amounts to is a supernatural whodunit with some sex crime thriller thrown in for good measure. The mood is consistently dark and brooding, with none of the playfulness of recent teen horror flicks, and there's some implied gore and violence (enough for an R rating in the US but nothing nearly as explicit as the mutilated corpses of The Crimson Rivers).
Kassovitz isn't shy about using familiar horror devices - a raging storm, a power cut and flickering lights at crucial moments - but he also produces some nicely unsettling ghost effects that recall recent Asian or Asian-inspired films like The Eye and The Ring. The doctors' frequent use of psychobabble and the restless camera work by Matthew Libatique (Requiem For A Dream) add to the contemporary feel.
The techniques produce a few good jolts though they also, along with a couple of the performances, contribute to the sometimes overwrought feel of the piece. The film also suffers somewhat from a uniformity of tone: rather than building up quietly to big shocks it keeps the tension fairly high throughout and offers smaller shocks at regular intervals. The subdued lighting and predominantly grey colour scheme, meanwhile, fit the film's mood but are used with almost no variation and eventually become monotonous.
Prod cos: Dark Castle Entertainment
US dist: Warner Bros Pictures
Int'l dist: Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Prods: Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Susan Levin
Exec prods: Steve Richards, Gary Ungar, Don Carmody
Co-prod: Richard Mirisch
Scr: Sebastian Gutierrez
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Prod des: Graham Grace Walker
Ed: Yannick Kergoat
Music: John Ottman
Main cast: Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr, Charles S Dutton, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill, Penelope Cruz