crazy, gaslighting, gothika, horror, hysteria, insanity, movie review, psych ward
This is one of those movies where I can’t figure out if it’s deceptively good or just a personal pleasure, regular as comfort food.
It pushes one of my major buttons by being set in a psychiatric facility, which forgives a multitude of sins. When you’re crazy, I suspect you either love or hate psych ward suspense. I’m one of the ones who loves ’em. I process a lot of my shit through fiction, and psych ward horror brings up a lot of issues that I can healthily address through it, even when it’s sensationalized and mentally ill people othered for effect. So yeah, it’s problematic, but it still helps me deal with my problems. You just take some things with a grain of salt or a spoonful of sugar.
As horror movies go, this one suffers most in its script, with jarring lines all over the place. Here’s one of the juicier tidbits:
MIRANDA: I’m not deluded, Pete. I’m possessed.
PETE: I don’t believe in ghosts.
MIRANDA: Neither do I. But they believe in me.
Someone just thought they were so clever coming up with some of these lines and wouldn’t give them up for anything. I’m tempted to say they paid Halle Berry so much that they couldn’t afford a good script, but it’s more likely the script was destroyed in production, so I won’t unilaterally blame the writer, who has very little control over what happens when the script is out of their hands.
But a solid cast makes the most of cheap lines. You see Robert Downey, Jr., pre-redemption, which is a treat. With Penelope Cruz, Charles Dutton, and John Carroll Lynch rounding out the cast, it’s hard to go wrong. The only gross miscast would be Bernard Hill, who brings every ounce of gravitas he can to a fundamentally silly film. They really should have stopped with Dutton and Lynch for legitimacy.
And can we talk about the title for a second? A title that has absolutely no connection to the story, but someone thought it might have a Hot Topic baby goth kind of appeal? Sure, the story is pure modern Gothic—a looming psychiatric prison, female madness, a cool, dark palette, gaslighting. But where the hell did the K come from? Considering the motif of NOT ALONE, they should have just gone with that instead.
Okay, now that I’m writing this review, I’m pretty sure the movie is just a guilty pleasure.
But there are things about GOTHIKA that do work and let you see the good the movie could have been. The palette alternates between a gentler gray blue and a sickening green (a common palette for horror in the early 2000s, but it really worked here). Like the contrast between clean institutional rooms and rundown Gothic architecture, it visually disorients in a setting where you think they’d be more interested in soothing its inhabitants (except the place is for the criminally insane, so maybe they kinda want to punish them, too).
The role gives Halle Berry somewhere to use her earnest emotional energy in a place where it fits. Most of the time, I want her to dial it back a click or two, but in a story essentially about the perception of female hysteria, her brand of emotion feeds that question of sanity, and she does small, fierce, and determined very well. The trouble is, when she’s playing the doctor, she’s supposed to be the best, yet her more clinical lines come off as those of a novice (script, again), and she doesn’t seem to even take herself seriously as a doctor. Her demeanor lacks assertiveness or authority. If I thought that was a deliberate choice to highlight female mollification of male ego or a case of Imposter Syndrome, I’d be more forgiving. But because I suspect she’s supposed to seem competent, I can’t be quite so forgiving.
However, once the instigating incident occurs and Berry’s character Miranda is incarcerated among her patients, including Cruz, things become much more interesting, if not exactly consistent. Even allowing for flawed communication between the living and the dead, the ghost makes very little sense, and the story deserved better. However, the motif of NOT ALONE throughout the movie appeals to me, because the meaning changes each time, yet each meaning holds its own weight—and might sound terribly familiar in the midst of the #MeToo movement.
[HERE THERE BE SPOILERS]
When it comes to the suspense payout, though, the farmhouse reveal lost me a bit when it comes to timeline logic. When Dutton’s character is addressing the camera, is he addressing his wife directly, with the anticipation of bringing her down there soon (or again)? Is the woman in the video the one chained down there or Miranda herself? There’s a suggestion that she might have been a victim herself and not known it, connecting her with Cruz’s character and continuing with the theme of repression for the purpose of survival that was introduced through the conservation Dutton’s character had with his wife in the beginning. Was Dutton’s character addressing himself as a continuation of that conversation? Does he say “I love you” to himself, his wife, his victim, or his partner? The malleability of NOT ALONE may point to all of these options as being possible and open to interpretation, but I might be too generous, and in order for all of them to work, there needs to be solid evidence for all like the NOT ALONE motif, but instead, there’s not solid evidence for any.
When I first saw the movie, I wasn’t as aware of Lynch’s reputation, nor had I learned to recognize certain thriller patterns, so I didn’t see the twist coming, but as endings go, it suffered the horror curse of being underwhelming, with amateurish FX, not to mention more jarringly bad lines that did not work. What kind of doped-up villain sees a ghost and goes, “No…this isn’t rational”? Seriously.
The epilogue was similarly ‘why?’ Although it was good to have a reunion between Miranda and Cruz’s character Chloe, since the movie opened with them, I think there could have been a much better way of handling it—perhaps back at the facility, something to reinforce Chloe’s survival to bookend the repression-as-survival concept. Really, they didn’t focus enough on that, and I wish they had. They only really discussed it in terms of doctors using repression as a reason to dismiss women’s stories.
So the ending wasn’t quite satisfying, but the story’s main strength comes in the middle, in the space between the sane and insane, when Miranda grapples with that question herself and the people who knew her as the doctor suddenly start treating her like a child. It’s as Chloe explains, “You are not a doctor in here. And even if you the tell the truth…no one will listen. You know why? Because you’re crazy. And the more you try to prove them wrong, the crazier you’ll appear. You are invisible now. Can you feel it?”
The treatment, infantilization, and utter dismissal of the mentally ill as though we have nothing to offer (in the parts of our brain that are unaffected, but even in the places where our perception is different) is worth shining a light on—as though skewed perception in one area steals credibility from everything else as well. In the case of women, it’s long been used as a way to interpret the slightest bit of emotion as hysteria, rebellion as insanity, and all that as a reason to lock a woman away for her own good. People totally believed that, and sometimes still do. Because once you’re labelled insane, all of a sudden you have no voice. No one listens to what you have to say, only to what a doctor says you mean. (This is a big reason why I sometimes have to listen to Emilie Autumn.)
Some of the best scenes are between Miranda and Chloe, as well as Miranda with Robert Downey, Jr.’s character, Pete. Easily the best scene in the movie is after Miranda wakes up in the institution, when she’s sure she’s sane and doesn’t know what’s happened, but everyone’s treating her as dangerously psychotic, and she’s terrified and vulnerable. When she fights Pete’s hold, the sexual tension established between them becomes so twisted, which it’s clearly supposed to. Then Berry and Downey engage in a clinical back and forth that’s just beautiful in its quiet simplicity. The entire bit has such nuanced performances from each actor, it’s a real gem in an otherwise middling movie.
All in all, it’s a film that could have been better, but I still love it in all its hot mess glory, and it has enough rough gems to mine that it’s worth a watch if you like gaslight horror or are interested in a shameless popcorn movie on a rainy night.
Seriously, though, at least three-quarters of the movie takes place during a downpour, so waiting for a rainy night really helps.