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Pop psychiatry with an ax


Beginning with its title, the new horror flick Gothika employs a number of possibly insoluble puzzles to establish its position within its genre and, presumably, to create some additional appeal to audiences.

            That title, to begin with, is apparently intended as a reference to a long, bloody, and often marvelous history of literature and cinema that stretches back a couple of centuries.Unfortunately, it signifies nothing at all beyond a possible, vague allusion to its central character, the perennial endangered female of the form. In addition, that archaic "k," instead of the usual spelling (if its makers really wanted some sort of pseudo-classy authenticity, they would have used the obsolete "Gothick") suggests an entirely meaningless and pretentious attempt at some dubious connection with an ancient past.

            The presence of HalleBerry raises yet further questions about the picture. She occupies just about every moment of screen time, indicating that the filmmakers intend the work as an extended star turn, a vehicle for the display of her talents, skills, and range. It seems passing strange, however, that an established star of her current magnitude and radiance should need not only another movie to dominate, but that she, or whoever makes the important decisions, would choose a little B horror flick instead of some perhaps more prestigious or socially acceptable form for that display.

            Berry plays a psychiatrist who works in an institution that appears to combine the mental hospital and the prison, which allows the filmmakers to exploit some of the material of the prison flick with their rather familiar exercise in terror and gore. The opening sequences provide a series of expository moments, showing a succession of encounters that will return to haunt her throughout the rest of the picture.

            She attempts to treat a patient, played by Penelope Cruz, for her delusions of a nightly rape, deals with the routine of her job, talks with her husband (Charles S. Dutton), who heads the institution, and a colleague (Robert Downey, Jr.), takes a vigorous swim in the hospital pool, chats with the security guards, then drives off to meet hubby at home. One of those torrential horror-movie rains of the sort that inspires ark builders forces her to take a detour, where she almost runs over a spectral, weeping young girl, an incident that precipitates all the fright and torment that will follow.

            The movie jumps to her awakening in a cell in her own institution, where the psychiatrist literally must get a taste of her own medicine. Accused of the ax murder of her husband --- a nice gesture in the direction of a beloved horror flick weapon --- she cannot convince her colleagues, her lawyer, or the sheriff of her story. Treated like the rest of the inmates, handcuffed, medicated to the gills with the usual anti-psychotic drugs, desperate and entirely alone, she must deal with the usual dilemma of characters in various thrillers, i.e., escape her confinement, solve the mystery of her husband's death, and prove her innocence.

            Given that familiar situation, the picture settles into an equally familiar pattern of action. Berry bounces off the walls of her cell, spends a considerable amount of time racing through a maze of corridors and catwalks pursued by cops and guards, hides for a while at the bottom of the swimming pool (the picture economically wastes none of its objects), and finally escapes from the place. Her frenzy, combined with the medication and the numerous quick cuts and changes of angle suggest that she metaphorically wanders through the labyrinth of her own troubled psyche.

            Because her character's predicament demands a decidedly high level of physical exertion, combined with some intense overacting, HalleBerry can demonstrate all those excesses that too many people confuse with high art. She moans, screams, weeps, sobs, sweats, and so forth. She often dares to look quite plain, presumably to indicate her versatility and her courage in wearing the drab hospital garb and undertaking some occasionally unglamourous close-ups.

            Perhaps her choice of Gothika instead of, say, some grand romantic weepie as a vehicle indicates something about the temper of the time and the evolution of taste, so that a beautiful young star would rather be a scream queen than a diva, would rather follow in the path of Fay Wray and, more recently, Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver, than Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Barbara Stanwyck. Certainly for all its ersatz suspense, predictable fright, and pop psychology, the movie apparently exists only for its star to shine. Very little else explains the puzzle of its production and release.

Gothika, starring Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz, Robert Downey, Jr., Charles S. Dutton, Bernard Hill, Dorian Harewood, John Carroll Lynch, Bronwen Mantel, Rachel Parsons; screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez; directed by MatthieuKassovitz. CinemarkTinseltown, Hoyts Greece Ridge, Loews Webster, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta.

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