House on Haunted Hill was modestly effective, as was the later House of Wax, but Dark Castles subsequent two films, Thir13een Ghosts and Ghost Ship, both directed by former Industrial Light and Magic art director Steve Beck, seemed on the verge of producing some atmospheric scares but instead ended up being overwhelmed by special effects. For Gothika, Dark Castle have brought in French actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz, who had previously made the likes of La Haine (1995) and the serial killer thriller The Crimson Rivers (2000) and subsequently went onto the Cyberpunk film Babylon A.D. (2008) and the historical film Rebellion (2011).
Mathieu Kassovitz welcomely dispenses with the visual effects that dominated Steve Becks films and concentrates on atmosphere. The shocks that Kassovitz provides are generally competent the audience that I saw the film with all jumped in the appropriate places. There are a couple of moments where Kassovitz does evoke something genuinely eerie the scene where Halle Berry asks the invisible ghost that if they are who she suspects they are then could they open her cell door and there is a long moment where we sit in doubt and then the door mysteriously opens; and a strong jolt when Halle Berry bends over and the ghost appears right behind her. Kassovitz draws the third quarter of the film out into some twenty minutes of sustained suspense, where there are perhaps too many continued jolts. Also the focus on constantly making the audience jump gets somewhat in the way of credibility if the ghost is only trying to get Halle Berrys help in solving its murder, then why does it make several attempts to kill and/or seriously harm her?
What ultimately makes Gothika fail to work is a weak script. The film seems like a conceptual blend of producer Robert Zemeckiss own What Lies Beneath (2000) about a wife being contacted by a girls ghost that is trying to lead her to solve her murder (the eventual murderers in both films turn out to be the same person too) and with Brain Dead/Paranoia (1990), a B film where psychiatrist Bill Pullman finds he has inexplicably changed places with one of the patients in his own asylum and killed his spouse without remembering doing so. Both of these other films do a much better job of sustaining their respective plots than Gothika does. Here the development of the various suspects and eventual unveiling of the killers identities is rudimentary. It is only Mathieu Kassovitzs occasionally effective shocks that keep the film moving. There are other logic holes one fails to find it credible that Halle Berrys co-workers would go from looking up to her as brilliant to people who hide behind stony-faced, unfriendly authority and treat her as seemingly less-than-human in the space of only three days. Nor is the meaning of the title Gothika ever explained anywhere in the film.
On the minus side, Gothika also suffers from Halle Berry. One has yet to be convinced of Halle Berrys abilities as an actress she made little impression on the James Bond series in Die Another Day (2002) other than an ability to wear a bikini, while her superstardom status seems to come less out of her Oscar win for Monsters Ball (2001) than it did the same years topless scene in Swordfish (2001). Of course, there was the thorough embarrassment of her next film, the entirely ridiculed Catwoman (2004). She gives a remarkably uninvolving performance in Gothika, where she seems neurotic and closed off. In fact, one suspects that the radiant and lovely Penelope Cruz, who is cast in a throwaway supporting performance as a crazy patient, would have brought far more naturally friendly sparkle to the role and engendered more sympathy than Halle Berry succeeds in doing.