I’m not sure why the general reception to Mathieu Kassovitz’s Gothika was bad bordering on hostile and I have nothing to say to people who hate this film other than I love it and really don’t see what the huge issues with it are. This is an atmospheric, expressionistic horror film made by a European director who favours image, sound, stylistic viscera, trippy nightmare logic and frightening tonal discordance over plot mechanisms, which is just fine by me. Halle Berry plays an expert psychiatrist at a scary Arkham Asylum looking facility where a disturbed patient (Penelope Cruz) whispers of unseen terrors that haunt her. One day Berry wakes up as a patient in her own ward, told by her colleague (Robert Downey Jr) that she’s guilty of killing her husband (Charles S. Dutton). She has no memory of the night in question except meeting a mysterious, ghostlike girl (Kathleen Mackey) on the road right before the alleged crime. Others including the local sheriff (John Carroll Lynch) and the facility’s director (Bernard Hill, always fantastic) try to get to the bottom of this supernaturally drenched murder mystery while Berry struggles to keep her sanity as she’s plagued by terrifying visions, waking nightmares and the ominous presence of the ghost girl. Look, not everything in this film’s plot makes the most sense, but it’s clear enough to serve as narrative framework for one of the most darkly evocative, visually eerie and audibly menacing auras in a horror film. It’s essentially a haunted house flick with a very real (and very horrific) murder/rape conspiracy playing alongside, as Berry wanders the stylized grounds of the asylum pursued by noises, grotesque deformations, tactile hallucinations and that persistent ghost girl who demonstrates the most effective and chilling use of the “jerky, otherworldly backwards ghost walk” I’ve probably ever seen. Berry and Downey Jr are terrific while Cruz does some very scary, against type work as the extremely disturbed trauma victim who holds secrets to the mystery she guards cryptically. I love this film, I love its weird, borderline surreal vibes, I love how lurid and gruesome the murder mystery is, how the production and sound design stimulate every sense and the film draws me into its world spectacularly every time.
There’s a whole bushel of ‘Most Dangerous Game’ films out there, tweaked versions of the same motif in which human beings are hunted for sport, and often large sums of money as well. Surviving The Game is probably the most bombastic and excessive one (John Woo’s Hard Target is the way to go if you want something slicker), but it’s a hoot of a flick, a dingy, mean spirited exploitation piece with an eccentric cast and thrills right up to the last scene. Ice T stars here under a giant heap of dreadlocks, playing a grumpy homeless man who is approached by an alleged social worker (Charles S. Dutton, intense) and offered help in the form of some vague rehab program way out in the woods. Soon he’s out in the woods at the remote retreat run by a sinister ex military Rutger Hauer, joined by other oddballs from all walks of life including F. Murray Abraham and a hopelessly coked out Gary Busey, who chews enough scenery that those giant teeth of his actually go to good use. This is no sabbatical though, as Ice soon finds out, and before he knows it he’s scrambling through the wilderness for his life as Hauer & Co. pursue him with a giddy amount of heavy artillery. The film isn’t interested in the morality or ethics of it’s concept, it’s here for a down n’ dirty romp and not much else, as long as you’re in popcorn mode you’ll get a kick out of it. Hauer is intense as ever, with some inspired costume choices and that ever present half smirk that signals danger and violence aren’t far off the horizon. Busey is certifiably, completely off his head, spouting monologues that weren’t even in the script (Hauer’s autobiography provides hilarious behind the scenes insight) and staring down everything that moves in true loosey Busey fashion. Throw in a manic John C. McGinley as well and you’ve got just about as much crazy as the film can handle. The combat hunting scenes really are impressive and thrilling, well staged stunts against a wilderness backdrop and raucous gunplay all round. An oddball of a flick, in the best way.
Matthieu Kassovitz’s underrated chiller Gothika is thick with a horror atmosphere that goes straight for the jugular in terms of scares, a psychological ghost story that actually raises hairs a frightens, or at least did for me. It sometimes sacrifices logic for style, but what style it’s got! Any horror flick set in an asylum just has to to be cloaked in workable atmosphere to be effective, and this one is positively dripping with it, hence the evocative title. Halle Berry plays a laid back psychiatrist who wakes up one day in the asylum she works at, only now a patient. She’s told she brutally murdered her husband (Charles S. Dutton) yet has no memory of the act. As if that weren’t a terrifying enough situation for her to be in, she starts having waking nightmares, haunted by a gnarly ghost of a girl (Kathleen Mackey) with mysterious ties to the facility’s past. Her colleague and friend (Robert Downey Jr. gives the dour proceedings his usual chipper pep) seems unable to help her. A guard (John Carroll Lynch) is hostile towards her, angry at the loss of her husband who was his friend. An erratic fellow patient (a de-glammed Penelope Cruz) seems to know more than her vacuous babbling would suggest. The asylum Director (Bernard Hill, excellent) is perplexed by the whole situation. It’s a twisty funhouse of a plot that probably piles on one stark plot turn too many, they’re nevertheless fun to be left aghast by as the rattle by with little regard for plausibility. Berry is convincing in her tormenting position, radiating desperation and resilience that claws at the cobwebs of insanity. Kassovitz piles on the gothic atmosphere relentlessly, and it really works, until we have a visual palette that looks like the dark underside of Tim Burton’s unconscious mind. The ghostly scenes have a threatening, intense edge to them and feel unnervingly realistic, putting us right in the hot seat with wide eyed Berry. Style over substance? Maybe. Okay, probably. But I care not. If the style, composition and palette are enough to draw me into a story, I can roll with it. This one imprints troubling negatives on the celluloid which latch themselves onto your psyche. Maybe it works well because it’s got a European director, and they’re more in tune with the supernatural in general. Maybe it just does a nice job at being effective horror. Either way, I enjoyed.