In 1999, powerhouse filmmakers Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, and Gilbert Adler banded together to create a company called Dark Castle Entertainment. Sharing a love for the kind of pulpy but well-crafted shockers that William Castle and Hammer Studios churned out in the '50s and '60s, their goal was to bring a new genre flick to theaters every Halloween, merging their own nostalgia with a modern, commercial sensibility.
Though box office receipts have generally been respectable, Dark Castle's track record in terms of quality has been spotty to say the least. Remakes such as 'House on Haunted Hill' (1999), 'Thir13en Ghosts' (2001), and 'House of Wax' (2005) contained little of what made the originals so charming, while fresh tales like 'Ghost Ship' (2002) and 'The Reaping' (2007) have been various shades of awful. Ironically, although it was a critical and commercial dud upon its original release, arguably the best of the Dark Castle bunch so far is the imperfect but still nifty little thriller, 'Gothika.'
The plot is basic B-movie grist. Halle Berry stars as Dr. Miranda Grey, a criminal psychologist at the Woodward Penitentiary for Women who will soon find herself one of its patients. After a ghostly encounter on a bridge with an apparition of a dead girl, Miranda wakes up to find herself accused of murdering her husband (Charles S. Dutton), who was found chopped to pieces with an axe. With only a sympathetic fellow doctor (Robert Downey Jr.) and a volatile inmate (Penelope Cruz) on her side, Miranda will have to escape from the penitentiary and solve the mystery to clear her name.
To be sure, 'Gothika' isn’t without its problems. First off, it never quite seems sure of what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a ghost story? A murder mystery? A police procedural? A straight-up horror flick? The screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez just piles on a little bit of everything, apparently hoping it will all come together. The film also cheats a bit with the true nature of Miranda's sudden psychic ability, which undermines the story. Finally, the ending seems designed to give the audience the kind of "shocking twist" now required post-'The Sixth Sense,' but it's only marginally satisfying.
Still, what elevates 'Gothika' above the other Dark Castle films is that at least it attempts to be classy. Director Mathieu Kassovitz ('Crimson Rivers,' 'Munich') ladles on the atmosphere perhaps a bit too thick at times, but clearly a real effort has been made to create mood and a foreboding sense of dread without excessive violence or gore. The cast is also quite fine, particularly Downey in a regrettably curtailed role, and Berry who (perhaps against her better judgment) never condescends to the material. The soundtrack by John Ottman is also very effective and melancholy, and is certainly one of the better horror scores in recent memory.
No, 'Gothika' isn't Hitchcock, but unlike every other Dark Castle flick released so far, it doesn't feel dumbed down, nor does it pander to the tween set. If you're in an undemanding mood for a some B-movie fun, this one may just the ticket for a dark and stormy night in the home theater.
Hitting cinemas only four years ago in 2003, 'Gothika' is technically a catalog title but it’s still fresh enough that it easily holds it own against a new release. To be sure, this is a slick, well-shot film, but it’s also one that’s bathed in shadows and as such it will really test the fine resolution capabilities of your display device.
Shadow delineation on this 1080p/VC-1 encode (identical on both the HD DVD and Blu-ray) is really quite impressive, at least in the early parts of the film. Blacks are inky perfection, while contrast -- though a bit on the hot side -- seems appropriate to the intended visual style. Colors are more varied. There are washed-out tones in some scenes, while others are dominated by steely blues. Fleshtones, while accurate, vary from scene to scene, but it's obviously intended to be a part of the "eerie" mood established by the filmmakers.
Unfortunately, the transfer does hit a few snags as the movie wears on. For some reason, sharpness suffers in the second half of the movie -- don’t be surprised if you spot sporadic bursts of softness. Some noise is also apparent during the climax, as the filmmakers drop the more overt surreal stylization of the film’s earlier sequences and go for a more realistic, standard-thriller look. Still, overall detail and depth are strong, and all things considered the video quality on ‘Gothika' hits far more than it misses.
Warner has been getting better lately about offering high-resolution audio on its catalog Blu-ray and HD DVD titles, but sadly 'Gothika' is not one of them. We get the studio's usual identical Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks as an option on both the Blu-ray and the HD DVD, and despite the “Plus” designator on the HD DVD, both tracks share the same lowly 640kpbs encode.
'Gothika' is another one of those horror movies that suffers from the "stinger syndrome," where loud bursts of noise are put on the soundtrack just to jolt us. No, its not scary, but it can be fun from a sonic perspective. As a result, the surrounds are put to good use throughout the movie, and atmosphere is palpable. The first third of the movie is practically drenched in a thunderstorm, and the sustained heft to the rears is appreciated. Tech specs are also quite solid, with supple low bass and an overall clean, clear feel. Dialogue is well-recorded, though balance is a little low, and I often struggled to make out words during the loudest portions of the movie.
'Gothika' has been released twice on standard-def DVD -- first as a bare-bones single-disc set, then as a two-disc special edition that added a fair amount of new material. Both the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions port over all of that material, though as is common with most Warner titles, the extras are presented in 4:3 full screen 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only.
Unfortunately, even with all the extras from the two-disc DVD, this really isn’t that extensive of a package and is largely marketing over substance. Cases in point are the two "documentaries" listed on the back of the packaging. In reality, neither are documentaries – they’re actually two parts of a single 22-minute featurette. "On the Set of Gothika" (15 minutes) is your typical extended commercial. Halle Berry, Charles Dutton and Robert Downey Jr. are joined by director Matthieu Kassovitz, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and other crew members for on-set interviews, but it’s just the usual fawning plot recap and promises that the flick will be oh-so-scary. "Painting with Fire" (7 minutes) is just an extension of "On the Set" that delves into the movie's production design, lightning, and visual style.
Meanwhile, the audio commentary with Kassovitz and Matthew Libatique is so relentlessly technical (and dry) that I was left with the impression that the movie may have purely been an exercise in style for Kassovitz, as he never seems particularly interested in his story or characters. This one is for the tech-minded only.
Billed as "interactive" on the old DVD, a couple of still- and graphic-based items now seem quaint. You can "Enter Woodward Penitentiary" and "Visit Dr. Grey's Office" to get a look at character files or at stylized drawings. Since the movie is far from a character study, all this stuff isn't terribly interesting or enlightening.
Rounding out the set are some promo items. Limp Bizket contributes a muscular cover of The Who's classic "Behind Blue Eyes," which is represented here by a music video (featuring lead singer Fred Durst slipping the tongue to Halle Berry), as well as a generous 20-minute episode of MTV’s "Making the Video." This featurette is, in some ways, more entertaining than the extras related to the flick itself -- Durst (who directed the video) comes off as something of train wreck – here’s guessing his reality show on VH-1 is just around the corner.
Also from the MTV archives is a segment from the show "Punk'd," hosted by Ashton Kutcher. This 4-minute segment is really quite funny, with Kutcher getting Berry locked out of her own movie premiere.
Finally, there is the film's Theatrical Trailer, formatted in 16:9 but looking like a standard-def upconvert.
Slickly shot and well-acted, 'Gothika' is probably the best effort yet from Dark Castle Entertainment. That doesn't make it a genre classic, but I thought it was enjoyably spooky fluff. This HD DVD is pretty good, too. The transfer and soundtrack are solid, while the extras are copious if still a bit underwhelming. Not a bad catalog release at all, this one’s an easy recommend for fans of the film. All others, just give it a rent if you're in the mood for a decent but unexceptional horror flick.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.