The Gravedancers


Dental hygiene isn't always the key to a happy life.

Dental hygiene isn’t always the key to a happy life.

(2006) Horror (Lionsgate/After Dark) Dominic Purcell, Josie Maran, Claire Kramer, Marcus Thomas, Tcheky Karyo, Meaghan Perry, Martha Holland, Oakley Stevenson, Samantha Twyford MacIvor, Jack Mulcahy, Jim McKeny, Geneva E. Avarett-Short, Bob McHone, Tina Murphy. Directed by Mike Mendez

We all do some pretty dumb things when we’re drunk. We say the wrong things to the wrong people, we pick fights, we sleep with people we shouldn’t have – there are very few of us who don’t have some sordid tale of something we did while we were drunk that we later came to regret. I’m pretty certain, however, that nobody has a tale quite like this one.

Harris McKay (Purcell) is back in his hometown for a funeral. His college buddy Chad bit the big one in a car accident and so there’s a reunion of sorts between friends Sid Vance (Thomas) and sultry Kira Hayden (Maran) with whom Harris had a fling with back in the day. The problem is Harris is married now and his wife Allison (Kramer) doesn’t get along well with Kira.

Allison heads back to the hotel room and leaves the three musketeers to get rip-roarin’ drunk. They make their way to a cemetery (as drunks often do) and find a mysterious black envelope with a poem written on a note inside it. Sid reads the poem which indicates that they should celebrate life by dancing on the graves of the dead, which they proceed to do in short order, which Sid punctuates by urinating on a headstone while Kira and Harris make out a little.

They all go back to their lives but something’s wrong. Harris and Allison hear mysterious sounds, and see odd things in the corner of their eye. Over the next few days these happenings get more frequent and more menacing. Sid tells of small fires cropping up at various times and places. Allison thinks it’s Kira trying to get back together with Harris. Harris and Allison go to confront Kira only to find her house a mess and Kira badly hurt, covered with bruises and bite marks and having been sexually assaulted.

They come to the realization that something is happening beyond their understanding or ability to contain, so they do what I’m sure thee and me would do next – they contact a paranormal investigator in the form of Vincent Cochet (Karyo) and his lovely assistant Frances Culpepper (Perry). They determine that the trio set off a curse with their actions and got three vengeful ghosts after them – a child arsonist, an axe murderer and a serial rapist and murderer. Not three haunts I’d want after me for sure.

Worse yet, they have until the next full moon before the wraiths kill the lot of ’em. The only way out of it appears to be to disinter the bodies and re-bury them, thus breaking the curse (don’t ask me how). Trouble is, one of the group has their own hidden agenda and is willing to risk the lives of the whole group to achieve it.

Mendez, the auteur of this finer-than-average horror flick, previously directed The Convent which was another mighty fine horror film. Here you have a movie that’s not blazing new trails, taking bits of Poltergeist here and bits of The Haunting of Hill House there. That’s ok – Mendez puts it all together in a nice appetizing whole, much like making a terrific casserole out of leftovers. That can be as good as gourmet sometimes.

The cast is mostly not well known although Purcell and Karyo have been around. Karyo provides a certain amount of comic relief and Purcell, who has done well in ensemble roles and shows signs of being a pretty good leading man, is palatable here. In fact, most of the acting is pretty solid, a bit better than you’d find in the average horror film.

The special effects are for the most part pretty cool until they get a bit over-the-top in the final reel. In fact, the whole ending is a bit…much. The director on the commentary mentioned they wanted the last part of the movie to be like the big drop on a roller coaster – you’re never sure when it’s coming or how it’s going to hit you but when it arrives it’s still fun. I can agree with that in theory but here they just get ludicrous on you which is a bit sad. A little more imagination with the final real might have made this a bit better. As it is, it’s a much better than average genre film you might have overlooked as it came out in a group of seven other films of differing quality. Scare film fans should check this out; unless you are thoroughly jaded, you won’t be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Balls-out scary in places. Decent performances and effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not too many surprises. Ending is a little much.

FAMILY VALUES: The imagery here is graphic and horrifying. There’s plenty of supernatural violence and some sexuality (a rape is implied) as well as a smattering of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was released as part of the first After Dark Horrorfest: 8 Films to Die For film festival in major markets in 2006.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Parental Guidance

Gothika


Gothika

Penelope Cruz and Halle Berry conduct a pretty faces who aren't just pretty faces face-off

(2003) Supernatural Thriller (Warner Brothers) Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Dutton, Penelope Cruz, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill, Dorian Harewood, Bronwen Mantel, Kathleen Mackey, Matthew G. Taylor, Michel Perron, Andrea Sheldon, Amy Sloan, Anana Rydvald. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

 

After an Oscar-winning tour-de-force in Monster’s Ball and a well-received role as Jinx in the James Bond¬† (Pierce Brosnan-era) flick Die Another Day, what Halle Berry needed to do was to show that she can open a film, in Hollywood parlance, to move up into upper echelon of stardom.

On the surface, Gothika would seem to be a strange choice for Berry’s declaration of superstardom. After all, it comes from Dark Castle Productions, which up to that point had for the most part been serving up remakes of William Castle-produced B-movie horror classics, only with better budgets and modern eye-popping effects (see House on Haunted Hill, Th13teen Ghosts). This one is a bit different. For one thing, it is a completely original story, one of the first Dark Castle produced.

The plot isn’t a simple one. At first glance, Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) seems to have a pretty nice life. A respected psychologist at a gothic woman’s prison in New England, she’s married to the warden (Dutton), himself a psychologist of some repute. There are hiccups, of course. One of her patients, Chloe (Cruz) seems to be imagining phantom rapes that she claims were perpetrated by the devil. When Miranda seeks a more rational explanation, Chloe exclaims “You can’t trust someone who thinks you’re crazy.” But the ever-rational Dr. Grey, who believes in logic above all, finds that Chloe’s rantings are the cries of a woman attempting to displace her guilt at having murdered her abusive husband.

That dark and stormy night Dr. Grey is forced to take a detour home when her normal route is washed out by the rain. She has to pass over a lonely bridge, when she nearly runs into a girl (Mantel) standing in the middle of the road, causing her car to skid into a ditch. When Dr. Grey goes to see if the girl is all right, she finds the girl is badly gashed. That’s the last thing she remembers.

Three days later, Dr. Grey wakes up — to discover she is now a patient in the penitentiary at which she formerly worked. When she demands to see her husband, her former co-worker, Dr. Graham (Downey), informs her that her husband isn’t in and wouldn’t be in again for the foreseeable future – and that Dr. Grey herself had punched his ticket for the choir invisible.

When Dr. Grey loses it, she is sedated. Over the next few days, she tries to piece together what happened, through therapy sessions, interviews with the sheriff (Lynch) who also happened to be her late husband’s best friend, and her own fragmented memory. When Dr. Grey sees the girl in the prison shower that she nearly ran into that fateful night, she becomes upset which I suppose is perfectly justifiable.

After some digging, Dr. Grey discovers that the girl is actually the daughter of a hospital administrator (Hill) and there is a bit of a problem; the girl had committed suicide years before. Dr. Grey, being the logical, stable person she is, doesn’t believe in ghosts. The problem is that ghosts apparently believe in Dr. Grey, and they begin to have several violent encounters with her, escalating with each incident, and always prefaced by flickering electric lights which go largely unnoticed in a prison that has had electrical problems for years.

It becomes obvious that there is more to the murder of her husband than Dr. Grey was led to believe, and that something or someone is willing to kill the good psychologist to silence her about what she knows. The only way to survive and find the truth about her husband’s murder is to escape from the maximum security prison, and only then will Dr. Grey confront what really happened to her husband – and find out that her life will change forever.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz sets up a wonderfully spooky atmosphere, which is absolutely essential for a ghost story. Unfortunately, Sebastian Guttierez’s script has a few leaps in logic which — when you consider his main character is supposed to be defined by her devotion to logic — derails the movie at times. For example, during the escape from the prison, Dr. Grey is allowed to leave by a friendly guard who even gives her his car to use. Why would he trust her when the evidence points to her as an axe-murderer?

There is another, even more glaring hole, but I can’t discuss it here without giving away a vital plot point. The characters are a bit stock but Berry does an excellent job. She has to play a strong, self-confident woman whose whole world is shattered. Dr. Grey is not the perfect hero; she loses it from time to time, which makes her more realistic. She has to re-evaluate her view of the world as it becomes more and more evident that there is a supernatural element in the events transpiring. She shows self-pity from time to time, but her inner strength carries her through.

With an Oscar victory in hand and an important role in the X-Men franchise, Berry is a formidable presence in Hollywood. In Gothika she more than proves that she is capable of carrying a movie herself. Kassovitz, who has directed Crimson Rivers (one of the best horror movies of recent years) and Amalie, a delightfully charming fantasy, is a first-rate talent. Although the flickering electricity can sometimes be a bit heavy-handed, he prefers to build the horror through atmosphere, suspense and misdirection. There are some horrific moments of gore, but the gore isn’t so over-the-top that it defines for the movie. With this impressive cast (Downey and Cruz are wonderful), he does a fine job in his first English-language movie. I had hoped we would see great things from him at the time this came out although to date that hasn’t happened yet.

Gothika is one of those movies you don’t want to see in a dark room without someone to clutch. There are a few genuine shocks, but nothing that will put a pacemaker into overdrive. It derives its success from excellent acting, fine directing and a compelling story advanced by characters who rarely stoop to cliche. If 2003 is remembered as the year visceral horror made a comeback (and it well should be), Gothika should have been noted as one of the films that fueled the trend. Unfortunately it didn’t get the respect it deserved.

WHY RENT THIS: Stellar performances and well-received scares. Kassovitz creates an admirably spooky atmosphere, perfect for a good ghost story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many lapses in logic and plot holes. Some of the characters are a bit stock. The ending is a bit weak.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, a bit of nudity and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Berry broke her arm during production when Downey grabbed her arm harder than he meant to and snapped it.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a Limp Biskit video covering the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” a song that figures prominantly in the movie. The Special Edition DVD also includes an episode of “Punk’D” featuring Hallie Berry being led to believe she had been locked out of the premiere of the movie, as well as an MTV documentary on the making of the Limp Biskit video. There is also a featurette on the inmates in the prison, giving their backstories. It doesn’t really add much to the movie but it’s a nice touch.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $141.6M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:One for the Money