Here's the thing: As of this writing, Warner Brothers had not yet released John Huston's 1951 Humphrey Bogart-Katharine Hepburn classic, "The African Queen" on DVD, not even in a regular edition, let alone a special edition. Yet it isn't six months after they release their regular-edition DVD of the mediocre 2003 horror flick "Gothika" that they issue this two-disc Special Edition. Life is unfair. Live with it.
The first question that struck me about "Gothika" before I even watched it was the title. I didn't know what it meant. Oh, I knew "gothic," defined by my Random House Unabridged Dictionary as, among other things, "a style of literature characterized by a gloomy setting, grotesque, mysterious, or violent events, and an atmosphere of degeneration and decay." Then I was reminded of Attica State Penitentiary in upper New York, scene of the infamous prison riots of the early seventies. Putting two and two together, I guessed the movie might be a dark, gothic tale set in the gloomy setting of an old, dilapidated prison. I wasn't far wrong.
What I didn't count on were the ghosts.
Clearly, "Gothika" was inspired by the success of "The Ring" the year before it. The similarities in tone, mood, music, and subject matter are too obvious to overlook. Yet, where "The Ring" took a preposterous idea and made it credible, "Gothika" takes a credible idea and makes it preposterous. This is not to suggest that "Gothika" is entirely unlikable, the first half of the movie being quite effective, but it goes downhill fast from there. It's as if the screenwriter, Sebastian Gutierrez, had a great starting point for a horror story, built up its exposition, then had nowhere to take it.
Halle Berry stars as a psychiatrist, Miranda Grey, who works in the mental ward of a maximum-security penitentiary. The gimmick is that shortly after the movie opens, she winds up a patient in her own hospital. How she got there, why she's there, and what she tries to do about it make up the movie's plot line. I had no trouble accepting Ms. Berry as a doctor; she's a fine actress. Nor did I have trouble accepting the typical horror-flick conventions of the gloomy, old building with its dimly lit corridors or Miranda's falling prey to disaster on a dark and stormy night. Indeed, I've come to expect and appreciate the traditions of good, B-grade chillers. What I would have liked was more a rational consistency in the story.
Miranda's husband, Douglas Grey, played by Charles Dutton, is a fellow doctor at the prison. They make an odd couple. He appears to be twice her age and five times her size. But love conquers all, I suppose. Besides, he's not in the picture more than a few minutes before he's summarily dispatched. You see, Miranda is driving home during the aforementioned stormy night when she very nearly hits a girl in the middle of the road. Stopping to assist her, Miranda is horrified to see the young woman self-immolate right in front of her eyes, at which point Miranda blacks out. When she awakens, she's locked in her own looney bin, accused of chopping up her husband with an axe!
Miranda now gets to see things from the inside, a perspective she never had the luxury to experience before. Penelope Cruz plays a former patient of Miranda's, now a fellow inmate, who thinks she's being repeatedly raped by the devil. Poor Ms. Cruz, along with the rest of the supporting cast, does her best, but the role is a dead-end. We think her character is going to be pivotal or elaborated in some way, but it isn't. Her one good line is "You can't trust someone who thinks you're crazy," because it becomes an important story element later on. Other than that, there's not a lot of need for her presence. Miranda's attending physician is Pete Graham, played by the excellent Robert Downey, Jr., and he, too, gets a juicy role for a limited time. Then, like the rest of the players, he practically disappears. The others in the cast are equally ignored: Bernard Hill as Phil Parsons, the head of the hospital facility; John Carroll Lynch as Sheriff Ryan, the murdered man's best friend; and Kathleen McKey as the young apparition who continues to appear to Miranda, but who says nothing.
Once the setup is complete, director Mahieu Kassovitz ("The Crimson Rivers") paces the first thirty minutes or so quite well and fashions a solid sense of morbid atmosphere; but, then, the movie starts to deteriorate. It gets repetitious; more gory as Miranda goes through all kinds of abuse, being sliced with the words "Not alone," either by herself or by forces unknown; more bizarre in its camera angles and technical effects; more frenetic in its quick cutting; and more prone to loud noises, loud music, and red herrings for its scare tactics. Before we know it, cheap thrills are substituted for serious plot development.
When we're wondering if Miranda is crazy or delusional or seeing spirits, the movie is engrossing. When we're frustrated by no one's believing in her sanity, not her doctor, not even her own lawyer, the movie is engaging. But when we're shown her being chased and followed down the usual paths, the movie becomes trite and mundane, culminating in a totally humdrum climax. When it's over, you'd best not think about it, because if you do, you realize that none of it makes any sense, the gaping plot discrepancies and one's myriad of questions making the whole experience all the more discouraging.
"Gothika" was produced by Dark Castle Entertainment, the Warner Bros. affiliate that also gave us "The House on Haunted Hill" (1999), "Thir13en Ghosts" (2001), and "Ghost Ship" (2002), so you know going in what to expect. There will be plenty of moody special effects, some atmospheric set designs, and a multitude of bumps in the night. Just don't count on much more than a dubious and oft-taken approach to horror. The movie is rated R for brief nudity, blood, and violence.
The video quality on the Special Edition DVD is just as I remembered it from my first DVD screening. It's a lot like the plot in that it starts off well and then for reasons unknown falls into decline. The screen size is an ordinary anamorphic ratio measuring about 1.78:1 across my standard-screen HD television, not particularly wide but common to most films today. The opening shots are very clean and very clear. A check of the bit rate indicates a low compression. Further on, one begins to notice that the darkness of the image also includes a degree of softness. As the movie progresses, the image seems to fluctuate between crystal sharpness and what appears to be deliberate murkiness. Finally, by the last half of its running time the film seems to be slightly grainier and more obscure than before, with a few more wavering lines. I am going to assume the original print was transferred to disc in about the same condition it was shown in theaters, and any flaws I noticed were meant to be there to help lend the film its "gothic" look. I dunno.
I continued to enjoy the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound this second time around. The strong, deep bass stood out first, with its solid impact and room-filling reverberations. Thunder in the rear channels was impressive, too, with a realistic sense of thunder, wind, and rain in the surround speakers. The car crash made its presence known with authority after that, followed by a host of creepy noises all around, whispering voices, creaking boards, things of that kind. I think if I had turned off the picture and just listened to the sound, as with old-time radio, I would have been more frightened by the story.
Disc one of this two-disc Special Edition set duplicates the previous single-disc release. There's the audio commentary, naturally, this one with the director, Mathieu Kassovitz, and the director of photography, Matthew Libatique. And there's a music video, "Behind Blue Eyes," with Limp Bizkit, the group that sings the tune during the film's closing. Then twenty-six scene selections and a theatrical trailer round it out, plus English and French spoken languages and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two is the reason for calling this new edition "special." It contains two documentaries, although neither of them is particularly significant. The first is called "On the Set of Gothika." It's sixteen minutes long, mostly clips from the film with promotional filler. The second documentary is called "Painting with Fire." It's seven minutes long and deals with the film's visual effects, a more interesting topic to me than a rehashing of why the film was so wonderful. Then in a "Punk'd" segment lasting four minutes there is an MTV practical joke played on Ms. Berry at the film's première. Following that is a nineteen-minute feature on MTV's "Making of the Music Video" with Limp Bizkit and Halle Berry. I find it odd that the feature on making the music video is longer than either of the features on the making of the movie. Finally, there are visual notes on the fictional patients in the movie, fictional drawings made by the fictional patients, and a DVD-ROM Web link. I cannot honestly say I was impressed by any of the Special Edition's new extras.
Possibly the best thing about the new set, however, is the packaging. The two discs come housed in a slim-line keep case that fits into a cardboard slip case. But that's not all. On the face of the slipcase is a plastic, holographic picture of Ms. Berry that duplicates the cover of the case, only this time as you move the picture from side to side, it changes from Ms. Berry to the words "Not alone." Yeah, well, it's something. There was no informational insert with my copy of the set.
I'm not big on extras, so I didn't really see their advantage to a film I didn't like. Anyhow, let me describe my problem with the film itself by putting it this way: I pretty much determined early on what was happening in the story and most of what was going to happen later. Now, I figure I'm just an average sort of guy, and if I could foretell the plot developments and the ending in advance, then probably anyone could. There were no surprises for me in "Gothika" and no real frights. The acting is impressive, I'll admit, and the director's filmmaking prowess is skilled. It was the story that didn't hold up. "Logic," says Miranda toward the end of the picture, "is overrated." Must be. The story line shows very little of it.
And I still don't know what "Gothika" means.