OK, so a movie's first scene has little Penelope Cruz squinting her little eyes and squeezing out her small Spanish accent, telling her shrink, "He opened me like a flower of pain and it felt gooooooooood."
Do you: A) Await the Variety full-page ads for Halle Berry's performance as the doctor? B) Roll your eyes heavenward? C) Snort, slump and wish you'd thought to bring some popcorn?
Gothika -- the title has no direct relation to the movie -- was produced by Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis' Dark Castle Entertainment, a partnership formed several years ago to make the kind of medium-budget, outrageous, or even outright ridiculous ghost stories they admired when they were younger. Dark Castle movies include 1999's superfluous yet successful remake of House on Haunted Hill, Thir13en Ghosts and Ghost Ship, memorable mostly for the story of how Gabriel Byrne, asked why he was prating on about politics during an interview, barked at a journalist, "What? Would you rather I talked about f--kin' Ghost Ship?!"
As supernatural slumming goes, Gothika's no Sixth Sense, but it's no Ghost Ship, either. I'm not completely sure if French director Mathieu Kassovitz's first American feature should be described as a good movie or a bad one, but Gothika shows a range of actors and craftsmen, including cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, Phone Booth) and composer John Ottman (The Usual Suspects, X-2) having a gleeful, lurid time. Gothika, set largely in a Quebec penitentiary and on dark country roads, looks absurdly rich for a self-conscious genre romp. Kassovitz also seems to endorse the radical shifts in plot and logic of Sebastian Gutierrez's script, working with the same headlong assurance, if not persuasiveness, as in his 2001 Euro-serial-killer story, Crimson Rivers. (An actor as well, Kassovitz played the dream-lover in Amelie.)
Berry's opening scene with Cruz is filled with the kind of rapid-fire analysis and insight common to on-screen therapists and psychologists. Her Dr. Miranda Grey is smarter than the average cookie, it seems, coaxing down Chloe (Cruz) - who's been incarcerated for slaughtering her father -- down from her recurrent visions of being raped by a tattooed Satan. She consults with the head of the institution (Charles S. Dutton), who turns out to be her husband. Their tenderness amid talk of "satanic meanderings" is leavened by the over-friendly attentions of fellow doctor Robert Downey Jr. "We were just talking about repression," Dutton says, as Downey fidgets in the doorway. A nice little triangle is established.
Next, it's a dark and stormy night. Crossing a covered bridge, Miranda's car almost runs over a small blonde girl in a nightdress, then plows into a ditch. Hoping to help the girl, Miranda takes her by the arm - and the child bursts into flames. Blackout. Ten minutes in, the world that Gothika has established is over with.
Wholly unlikely yet filled with pert narrative satisfactions, we're suddenly propelled into a "Ladies in the Bughouse" story, where Woodward Penitentiary becomes Miranda's very own snake pit. A terrible crime's been committed in the several days since Miranda was put under medication; Downey tries to help her, but she can't see clearly. So what's the proper thing to do in a case like that? Lose her in the general population with her patients! Have the good doctor walk into the middle of the communal shower for a bit of cinematic humiliation!
Throughout, Kassovitz and Co. provide ample opportunity for Berry's bottom and bosom to take their rightful place on screen. Indeed, there's a world of study to be made here in how one reveals the assets of an Academy Award-winning performer without quite doing the Full Naughty: the camera dipping and ducking, the angles tape-measured just so, boom shots floating upward as she walks past. Swathes of shoulder blade and collarbone may be glimpsed, but never the more precious parts. (Kassovitz & amp; Co. also demonstrate keen interest in keeping Berry barefoot amid her confusions, whether in showers, rain, dust or sluicing blood.)
The dialogue is ripe, though shy of risible. "This isn't logical, you're already dead!" a ghost gets told. "Logic is overrated," the ghost shrugs: a nice, self-aware rallying cry for the excesses compressed within the movie.
"I'm not deluded, I'm possessed!" is one war cry. Here's another: "I don't believe in ghosts." What can you say but "Me, neither, but they believe in me"? The walls close in, in inventive profusion, and the last few turns of the plot are gratifyingly over the top. Gothika is for those who like their madness with a chaser of creepiness and who won't be too fearful around the family knives come Thanksgiving.