Gothica: Flick goes from soap to nuts

Fearless prediction: Halle Berry will not win her second Oscar for her performance in Gothika. Not that she doesn't give a good performance, but:

1) It's a horror movie. Martin Landau won an Academy Award for playing Bela Lugosi, but Lugosi himself was never nominated; and

2) She looks too good. Oh, they didn't meet her presumably increased price to show her breasts, even in the group shower scene where other women display their naughty bits; but in her role as a prison psychiatrist, Berry shows more leg than Barbra Streisand in The Prince of Tides and has scenes in a bathing suit, a tight skirt, and a wet t-shirt.

When you've got Halle Berry in your movie, you don't dress her like Angela Lansbury, but this seems to border on exploitation.

Gothika is a silly but effective thriller. French director Mathieu Kassovitz, making his first English-language film, shows great command of the required technique. He gets maximum mileage from dark and stormy nights, flickering lights, figures appearing out of nowhere, and the old bird-in-the-barn trick.

Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) works under her husband Doug (Charles S. Dutton) at the Woodward Penitentiary for Women in Connecticut. Among her patients is Chloe (Penelope Cruz), who babbles about having been raped by the devil. Miranda tries to win her trust, but Chloe says, "You can't trust someone who thinks you're crazy," in a way that lets you know it's significant.

An unwritten rule for watching movies like Gothika is that you can't mistrust someone you think is crazy, so don't count Chloe out.

Miranda is heading home when a teenage girl in the road makes her stop. As she approaches the girl and offers her coat, the girl goes up in flames. The next thing Miranda knows, it's three days later and she's under observation at Woodward. Her colleague, Pete Graham (Robert Downey Jr.) tells her, "Doug is dead. You killed him."

Now Pete was acting strangely in the early scenes, seemingly flirting with Miranda even though she's his boss's wife; and Doug was too trusting of him, asking him to look after Miranda while he was away. The girl in the road turns out to be the daughter of yet another colleague, Phil Parsons (Bernard Hill). The trouble is, she committed suicide four years ago.

So you've got Alfred Hitchcock's favorite plot, "the wrong man"– except in this case the wrong man is a woman– with supernatural overtones. Does Miranda see dead people? Is someone trying to frame her? Or did she really kill her husband?

You may not know all the answers when Gothika ends, but you'll have had fun exploring the questions.

Or if your idea of fun is tearing apart a script, you can do that too while the plot goes from soap to nuts. My favorite dumb moment comes when Miranda's trying to escape from prison, and a guard we haven't seen before lends her his car. If you know of any jobs for a former prison guard, he's probably still looking.

But if you're skilled enough to scratch your head and jump out of your seat at the same time, Gothika is the movie for you.