Nov 26, 2003 at 12:00 am

If you’re going to make a movie called Gothika, certain bases have got to be covered. Is there rain? Is there lots and lots of rain? Is there something resembling a castle? Is there a woman who is uncovering a lot of spooky stuff about ghosts, insanity, murder, and sex? Are there axes and rats and bloody words splattered on walls? Director Mathieu Kassovitz gets it right with every convention the name of his film demands. Even though he’s playing with some pretty dusty conventions here, he manages to put some genuine chills up your spine. Gothika is a taut, stylish, atmospheric funhouse ride.

Halle Berry plays Dr. Miranda Grey, a rational, logical, no-nonsense psychiatrist at a women’s prison for the criminally insane called Woodward Penitentiary. How do we know that she’s rational and logical and doesn’t have time for nonsense? Well, she tells everyone. All the time. Do you think her logic will be tested? Do you think her rational mind will be assaulted with specters of a horrible netherworld? Will she herself be accused not only of insanity, but also of the murder of her husband who just so happens to be the warden of this fortress of the damned? You betcha! It’s called Gothika, isn’t it?!

The star of Gothika is the prison. With its perpetually wet stone walls, its surgical steel prisoners’ cells, its slaughterhouse-style shower hall and the long blue-and-gray byways of Woodward Penitentiary, Kassovitz has constructed a stunning playground to dump all the horror and mayhem in your lap. And if that isn’t enough gothic aura for you to behold, Kassovitz just happens to give Woodward Penitentiary an electrical system worthy of a rundown housing project. The lights are on … now they’re flickering … now they’re off. It’s cheap and stupid, but funhouse rides usually are. You’ll jump out of your seat and be embarrassed and laugh and wait for the next stupid thing to jump out of the shadows.

While there are some impressive supporting players here (Robert Downey Jr. as Dr. Grey’s psychiatric sidekick and Charles Dutton as the warden/husband/unlucky recipient of a few dozen ax swipes), the story really revolves around Dr. Grey’s nightmarish imprisonment within the moldy walls of Woodward Penitentiary. There’s also a perpetually soaking-wet teenage girl who pops up when you least expect her and a lot of times when you do, and a gaunt and troubled daddy-killer named Chloe, played by Penelope Cruz.

Yes, Gothika does have plot holes big enough to drive a step van through. And, yes, the movie often manipulates you with cheap 1980s slasher flick abandon. Jump into that funhouse cart anyway. Roll with it. You’ll have a blast.

Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].