Lisa Schwarzbaum
November 19, 2003 AT 05:00 AM EST


Current Status
In Season
97 minutes
Wide Release Date
Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz, Robert Downey Jr., Charles S. Dutton
Mathieu Kassovitz
Warner Bros.
Sebastian Gutierrez
Mystery and Thriller

We gave it a C

There’s a frightening image early in Gothika that I can’t get out of my mind. After Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) has finished interviewing a flamboyantly deranged killer (Penélope Cruz) at the ominous-looking penitentiary in which she is clearly a more beautiful psychiatrist than any criminally insane inmate has a legal right to consult, she steps into the office of the ward administrator (Charles S. Dutton), who is also her husband. And there — oh, banish the awful memory! — the large man kisses the luxe woman with a coarse, gaping, face-sucking mouth action from which any God-fearing person would recoil with horror. Horror!

Other than that, this overripe grade-C reconstitution of a grade-B scary thriller hauls out thunderstorms, blood, the ghosts of butchered girls, nightmares, and the usual head trips, all played on poor Miranda. Accused of her husband’s murder (no more face sucking for him!), the doctor is thrown in among her patients in the same gloomy madhouse she used to patrol as a professional in a sleek pencil skirt; there’s a whole lotta ”Gaslight”-ing going on. In a strained effort, perhaps, to confound any perceived limitations placed on her post-Oscar career choices, Berry takes on the plump genre role with tense earnestness. And she’s met head-on by Robert Downey Jr., playing Miranda’s twitchy colleague with the antic line readings and odd gestures of an amateur thespian playing Dr. Frankenstein.

”Gothika” comes from the same jolly homage-to-schlock-shock producers who remade ”House on Haunted Hill,” and the emphasis is shamelessly on ornate scares. But with its high-gloss cast and French art-house actor and director Mathieu Kassovitz (”Hate”) in charge, the movie also shoots for class. And that way lies Method acting when all we want is a little madness.

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