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.
Those learning the craft of film-making nowadays shall have little to no experience with cutting film the old fashioned way. True – it was timing consuming, sometimes messy and fraught with peril – depending on your mastery. It was, however, also romantic. The trims at your feet, the smell of celluloid, the tactile nature of editing a movie . . . one splice at a time.
Mick’s a gentleman, aside from being and exceptional craftsman, and please do check out all the great work he is doing over at his family owned and operated venture Sprocket Rocket Soho. Mick is continuing to contribute, educate and bring together all those with a passion for telling stories via the moving image.
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.
The Hi-Lo Country is a very unique film, totally under the radar (where’s the Blu-ray?!), made with supreme skill and confidence by an eclectic group of collaborators, and anchored by two fantastic performances by Woody Harrelson and the eternally undervalued Billy Crudup. Set in post-WWII New Mexico, it’s a cowboy film, it’s a Western, it’s a family drama, it’s a romance, and there are more than a few grace notes contained in Walon Green’s poetic screenplay (based on the novel by Max Evans) which provides a lyrical sense of love and sweep for the time period and dusty locations. Directed with a classical sense of proportion and clear-eyed dramatics by the gifted British director Stephen Frears, the film also boasts Martin Scorsese as a “Presenter,” further adding to the name-brand quality of the filmmaking team. The stellar supporting cast includes Patricia Arquette as the woman who falls in love with both of the leads, a crusty Sam Elliot as the chief antagonist who feels right at home in this material, a baby-faced Penelope Cruz in one of her first English-language feature films, and the distinctive actor Cole Hauser in an early (and possibly best) performance as a sketchy acquaintance of both Harrelson and Crudup. Carter Burwell’s familiar orchestral notes lend an interesting aural texture to the film, with Oliver Stapleton’s honeyed and golden widescreen cinematography made excellent use of the vistas and endless desert and open-plain landscape. The film was barely released back in late 1998 (it grossed $166,000!), and curiously, critical reception was more mixed than might have been expected. But over the years, it’s been a film that’s always enticed me back for revisits; there’s just something so different and offbeat about this movie, which while trading off of expected conventions (both visually and narratively), feels like few other modern genre pieces that I can think of. This film is the very definition of a small gem, a work that’s begging to be re-discovered by a more appreciative audience.