Three years ago there was The Gift and What Lies Beneath. Now there is Gothika, the latest in a horror subgenre that features wet female ghosts popping out of the scenery and goosing screams out of the protagonist and the audience. Invariably the main character is a beautiful and talented woman dismissed as unstable by the authority figures around her. Invariably Something Awful has happened, resulting in the Wet Female Ghost bedeviling the heroine. Invariably there is a Perfidious Male Who Knows All About It secreted somewhere in the cast. The plot is driven by the heroine figuring out the identity of the Perfidious Male, the nature of the Awful Something, and its connection to the Wet Female Ghost.
In this case, the main character is Miranda Grey, a beautiful criminal psychologist who works with her husband in the psychiatric ward at Woodward Penitentiary for Women, a place that, with its turrets, tiles, flickering lights, and art-deco windows practically qualifies as the film’s title character. After a weird encounter with a drenched, badly beaten teenage girl on a lonely road, Miranda wakes up three days later to find herself an inmate of Woodward, accused of chopping her loving husband into Lincoln Logs.
With little memory of the past three days beyond terrifying flashbacks of blood and mayhem, she must struggle to piece together what really happened while contending not only with skeptical former colleagues but the phantom of the teenage girl, who is still wet and seems pretty angry about it. Fortunately, Miranda is not only good-looking and (the other characters keep insisting) smart, but she’s also made out of an especially durable form of rubber so that she loses neither her good looks nor her mobility even after being repeatedly hurled against a concrete wall by malevolent spiritual forces.
Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball, X-Men) is Miranda Grey, Charles S. Dutton her doomed husband, John Carroll Lynch (Restaurant) her husband’s best friend, and Penelope Cruz (Woman on Top, Blow) is a fellow inmate. Robert Downey Jr.(The Singing Detective) plays a psychologist who goes from being Miranda’s co-worker to her doctor and is given very little to do other than look alternately concerned and exasperated. Director Mathieu Kassovitz (Amelie)and screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez both know how to make an audience jump and scream, but they also ascribe to the mistaken notion that horror requires no real verisimilitude beyond special effects. The logical holes in the script are so obvious they become distracting.
There are some tense, truly disturbing moments, as when Miranda revisits the house where she allegedly murdered her husband, but there are no real surprises in this film. It follows the conventions of mainstream American horror with paint-by-the-numbers efficiency, down to the inevitable one-on-one interview between the heroine and the about-to-be-unmasked villain. In the end, everything is as the audience knows it will be, with order restored, justice done, and the horror defanged. Those who like their chills diluted may enjoy it, but anyone who prefers their horror straight up is likely to find the film a disappointment.